I’ve spent a great deal of time since last summer researching the history of New York City’s Trinity Church…or, more specifically, Trinity Churchyard (the graveyard surrounding the church). The process of painstakingly combing through nineteenth-century books, poems, periodicals, tourist guides, and visual art was actually a huge amount of fun. It was for an article that was my first piece of new scholarship post-dissertation, and it was inspired by a chance encounter with an 1820s newspaper text that I recognized from an 1850s newspaper that I had been reading a year prior. I searched for some key terms in some historical newspaper databases and found that extremely similar texts appeared throughout the nineteenth century. When I expanded my search, it became clear just how much literature and visual art there was about Trinity Churchyard during the nineteenth century. This led to the article that is currently, in its second iteration, under review with a journal, and that was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable piece of scholarship I’ve yet written.
While the article is definitely within my area of research, it was also a project 1) born out of an exciting discovery, 2) based in a history that is local to me, 3) based in a site that I could easily visit, 4) temporally outside the usual range of my research, and 5) invigoratingly steeped in the physicality of monuments, cultural landmarks, and history.
I chose to write this post about Trinity Churchyard because I’m reflecting again on just how important the site was to nineteenth-century New Yorkers (and Americans in general). It was one of the most written-about landmarks in the entire country, accessible (unlike many rural cemeteries) to all classes of visitors who might just be walking by on their walk home along Broadway or popping in on their Wall Street lunch break for some quiet time. It was a uniquely old site that had fabulous connections to NY’s Dutch and English roots, to the Revolutionary War, to founders like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, to war heroes like Captain James Lawrence, and to anonymous, private individuals like “My Mother” (whose tomb was one of most discussed during the period). In an era before a Washington Monument, an Empire State Building, a Brooklyn or Golden Gate Bridge, a World Trade Center (the memorials of which I relate to the tombstones in Trinity Churchyard), etc., Trinity Churchyard was a unique site of connection with America’s history, identity, and, as I argue, continued negotation with the ever-modernizing present (especially through its location at the junction of Broadway and Wall Street). Add to this that it provided a natural, green, secluded landscape amid the bustling hubbub of downtown Manhattan, and its romantic potential becomes even more clear.
While I wait to hear back about the article’s status (I’ll post updates in a future issue of the Monthly Journal), I’m also thinking about how I might create a small exhibition about the churchyard. All the materials are there for it: paintings, sketches, etchings, poems, essays, articles, books, etc. It’s simply a matter of finding a venue, figuring out funding, and making the time. If anybody has any suggestions, please let me know!