New insight to colonial life
Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 21, 2013 22:02
Independent scholar and former editor Michelle Coughlin presented a reconstruction of the life of Mehetable Chandler Coit at the Women’s Center on Thursday, demonstrating how research into early American diaries is providing new insight into American life.
Titled “One Colonial Woman’s World,” the book and presentation Coughlin created was based on her initial research into early New England diaries. She said she was disappointed to find only a few diaries by women, but reasoned that this was due to the fact that early women either did not have the time or education to pursue journal-keeping. When she first read a few journal accounts published by Coit’s great great granddaughters in 1895, she began her research into Coit’s life.
Tracking the published records to Yale, Coughlin found that the university held two letters written by Coit herself and 20 more written by Coit’s relatives. The donor of the letters was Elizabeth Anderson, who Coughling found was still alive at the age of 95. After writing a letter, she discovered that Anderson had forgotten where she placed the diary, but she called Anderson’s nephew in Long Island, who told her that he had the journal.
The diary, Coughlin said, contained a variety of poems, medical remedies and recipes that were not included in the published version of the diary. These entries were arranged thematically rather than chronologically and documented external events in brief words, lacking much emotion. This is because Coit, like other Puritans, focused greatly on how God works in the world by recording events outside of their own emotions. She pointed out a shift in diary writing that the audience found interesting: though we consider diaries a place to pour out emotions and thoughts, they were used for life records for a long time.
Coughlin discovered things about Puritan life that most people tend to either overlook or not associate with the people and religion. For example, most of the recipes in the journal were of desserts and alcoholic beverages. In fact, Coit’s father was punished for illegally selling beer without a permit and for allowing singing and fiddling to occur at midnight. Coughlin also went on to explain that even though he had to pay fines, he was appointed constable shortly after and was in charge of preventing the selling of alcohol illegally and disruptions. Coughlin saw this as evidence that although the Puritan lifestyle was strict, they did want rehabilitation and believed in second chances.
Coit held relationships with people from Newport, R.I., and East Hampton, N.Y., which showed that Coit was linked to a wider world. She also quoted political works, demonstrating that she engaged with ideas of personal and political freedoms. Though much emotion was exempt from the diaries, the letters that Coughlin was able to read gave a glimpse into the personality of Coit. The diary itself, however, is one of the earliest references to early New England life that uncovers a few unknown truths about Puritan life and the life of women.