Alexis de Tocquville’s “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” and the Clarke Historical Library’s Fall Exhibit 2018

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By Gillian Macdonald

As a PhD student in the history department you expect to be a teaching assistant for much of your time in the program.  Recently, however, the History Department at Central Michigan University has partnered with the Clarke Historical Library and the Michigan Historical Review to open up new opportunities for PhD students to embrace possible alternative careers to being a tenured professor. As the job market remains ever so thin, this opportunity is particularly helpful in offering training for careers outside of traditional tenure-track positions. 

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As one of the first PhD students to be granted this opportunity, let me take some time to describe my responsibilities at the Clarke Historical Library…my new home away from home as Frank Boles has so wonderfully called it. Simply put, arranging and creating exhibits is hard, detailed work. Anyone that thinks it is anything less than stressful (but enjoyable) up until the last minute is likely still enjoying the euphoria of finishing a project to give an accurate assessment. While exhibit curators and designers are fun people to work with, there is a lot of negotiation throughout the process. As historians we hope to see all elements of our research make it into an exhibit, but it is simply not possible to do so. That leads me to the Clarke’s Fall 2018 exhibit:  Tocqueville’s Two Weeks in the Wilderness. The idea for the exhibit itself began with United States District Court Judge Avern Cohen.

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Alexis de Tocqueville visited Michigan in the 1830s.  “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” or “Quinze jours dans le désert,” describes the journey he and Gustave de Beaumont took along the Saginaw Trail in 1831.  “We are going with the intention of examining in detail and as scientifically as possible the entire scope of that vast American society which everybody talks about and nobody knows.” Enamored with the vast forest and wilderness of Michigan, he described the interior of Michigan with great admiration: “While exploring this flourishing wilderness...you feel only quiet admiration, a gentle, melancholy emotion, and a vague disgust with civilized life. With a sort of savage instinct, it pains you to think that soon this delightful solitude will have been utterly transformed.” Tocqueville’s travels in Michigan were part of a commissioned trip to the United States to examine the prison system.  However, his true aim was to explore the untapped outer limits of civilization was only made clear upon his arrival. 

Despite only being part of about half of the process for this exhibit, it is challenging nonetheless. The excruciating detail and time-consuming activities make a time crunch almost inevitable. Nonetheless, I had so much fun. Hands-on work and practical applications of history and the training that we get in the history department are put to the test not to mention an ability to create statistics about Michigan in the 1830s from scratch. This particular exhibit is marvelous (and I don’t just say that because I helped). It is the result of hard labor and a lot of fun exploring stacks and running back and forth from the printer doing last-minute labeling. Another fun perk is that the Clarke’s very own Bryan Whitledge is now on a first name basis with the Countess Stephanie de Tocqueville, so that’s pretty cool too. 

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In summary, the Clarke has one of the nicest housing spaces for exhibits that I have seen in any university library (in my limited experience). With this, they have a unique ability to showcase collections and exhibits, work with departments, be an archival library, and house a journal. You should check it out!