While in Philadelphia, Vicky and I had several goals: to make a record of Phil Lapsansky’s research file, visit the Philadelphia archives, and obtain documents from the Catholic Historical Society. In doing this research, I hoped to acquire several important primary documents related to Leonora Sansay’s biography and publishing history, and to determine the breadth of Lapsansky’s research. As it turned out, these goals overlapped and diverged in surprising ways.
On our first day we visited the Library Company of Philadelphia, where researcher Phil Lapsansky worked as the Curator of African Americana for over four decades and pioneered the research into the life and career of American writer Leonora Sansay. The Library Company of Philadelphia also holds five original printings of Sansay’s works, making it the most complete collection of her books in the world. Since the spring of 2013 I have corresponded at length with Krystal Appiah, The Library Company’s current Curator of African Americana, and Nicole Joniec, the Digital Collections Manager regarding this collection of books. I had many questions for them about their previous curator Phil Lapsansky’s research on Leonora Sansay, which they graciously and patiently answered. But I always seemed to come away with more questions. Exactly which historic legal documents did Lapsansky have on record? How did his research overlap with key researchers who followed in his footsteps? Did he have any relevant unpublished papers? In addition, I needed more detailed information about how the books were bound and if they contained any marginalia. Over the last several months it became apparent that my research needs exceeded what could be communicated through email, and that I would need to see both their collection and Lapsansky’s research file in person.
At the Library Company of Philadelphia, Vicky and I were able to record the entirety of Lapsansky’s rich research file. It contained many interesting leads, some of which are not yet publicly available. His research file contained information about Leonora Sansay’s career making artificial flowers, her exhibition of these flowers in an art gallery, information on which libraries hold Louis Sansay’s original letters, and drafts of both his and another researcher’s publications. We had expressly hoped to find out whether Phil Lapsansky or Jennifer Van Bergen had found Sansay’s legal records first. The drafts of Lapsansky’s research have been instrumental in helping us begin to resolve this question. The additional documents provide critical leads towards accounting for a period in Sansay’s life where she seems to fall silent in the historical record.
We also had the great serendipity of running into Phil Lapsansky while we were at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Because Krystal Appiah knew that we were looking at his research specifically, she was generous enough to provide Vicky and I with an introduction, and we were then able to interview Lapsansky about his research process and findings. One of the questions that I’ve always had was regarding whether or not Lapsansky intended for his published research to provide the grounds for the biographical information currently available on Leonora Sansay. Vicky and I were able to speak with him in detail about this topic and about the intended audience for his publication, and found that he did publish it with an academic audience in mind. This information greatly aids my current work, which seeks to challenge some of Lapsansky’s assertions regarding Leonora Sansay’s biographical details. Lapsansky also graciously shared with us his research contacts at other libraries and has made himself available to Vicky and I if we have further questions.
So what would we hope to do with all of this? Currently, Vicky and I are working to draft an essay where we will use our now considerable body of research to show how Leonora Sansay’s works, in particular Secret History and Laura, are vital to understanding the progression of 19th century American women’s literature, and to exploring American-Creole identity beyond the topographical borders of the United States. This is undoubtedly a tall order, but I believe that Sansay’s work is up to the task. It is my understanding that Secret History (1808) is currently the only known documentation that provides a woman’s eyewitness account of the Haitian Revolution. In stark contrast to the themes found in popular 19th century literature, Secret History provides a blistering account of marriage and the tyranny of men. In this work communities of women crisscross ethnic, racial, and national borders to form a social safety net that provides an alternative to patriarchal power structures. In Laura (1809), Leonora Sansay sets herself apart from other women writers by crafting an experimental alternative to the “fallen woman” trope. As a result, her work provides an early example of the writing that laid the groundwork for Margret Fuller and other first-wave feminists. These factors give Leonora Sansay’s work considerable social and historical significance.