I’ve been pulling together the images I’d like to include in my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright. My publisher is very generous and is permitting me to include up to twenty of them (!)–and because Esther moves around so much (especially for a girl and a woman) and crosses so many cultural, religious, and linguistic borders, I’ll really need twenty illustrations to give readers a sense of the material culture of all of her different worlds and families.
The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a crude oil portrait on paper of Esther Wheelwright’s nephew, Nathaniel, by John Singleton Copley. Nathaniel becomes a diplomat on behalf of Massachusetts and goes to Montreal and Quebec in 1752-53 to attempt to effect the return of some New England child captives being held by Native allies of the French. In the course of this trip, he meets twice with his aunt, and gives us one of the only personality sketches of her that we have. I’ve been considering including this portrait in my book, but I’ve decided not to.
First, as far as a Copley portrait goes, it’s about the least glamorous I’ve ever seen, and seems rather hurried and smudgy, not to mention unflattering! (Judge for yourself–that’s him on the right.) But in the end, what set me against including it is the fact that every other image in the book is of a girl or a woman, or is a photo of an object either made or used by a girl or a woman. Nathaniel would really stand out, and quite frankly, it’s not an image that opens itself up for visual analysis. I’m sure someone else can see a lot more here & do something with it, but Nate is marginal rather than central to the story I’m telling.
Since one of the larger arguments of my book is that girls and women matter in early America, and that we need to examine our preference for nationalist biographies of men (such as the so-called “Founding Fathers”), Nathaniel would seem to be entirely out of place. He’s a useful informant, and I’m certainly grateful that he kept a diary of his journey to Canada, but that doesn’t rate a starring role in my book.
So, tough luck, buttercup: Nate didn’t make the cut.