The Hastings collection offers an unusually rich insight into the mind of Ruth Newcomb Hastings, a young teacher from the Troy Female Seminary experiencing southern society for the first time. Written during a twelve month span in 1852-1853, these letters reveal the young teacher's insecurities about her social and professional status, her reactions to slavery and plantation life, her adjustments to teaching, and her responses to life in a new family and new culture. Typical "women's" topics, such as dress, food, and family, dominate many of the letters.
As well educated and articulate as she was insecure, Ruth's letters delineate her fragile emotional and mental state as she embarked on a new career in a new culture. Particularly in the first six months on the job, Ruth wrote long, descriptive letters, discussing her new responsibilities and unfamiliar surroundings in admirable detail. Addressed to her sister, Mary, and parents -- who were struggling with their own finances and careers -- Ruth's letters are intensely personal, consumed with concerns over her reception in the Williams' family, and her expectations, frustrations, and failings. The complex interplay of personal, professional, and psychological factors, and of education, plantation life, religion, and family, creates a well rounded portrait of the teacher and her pupils and their respective cultures.
Among the highlights of the collection are an extraordinary account of a hunt for fugitive slaves in June 1852, discussions of southern reactions to Uncle Tom's Cabin, and of the effect of slavery upon the attitudes and behavior of white southerners. Ruth was simultaneously aware of the desensitization that overtook slave holders and prone to it herself. For obvious reasons, her opportunities for opposing slavery were greatly limited, but her sympathies upon reading and discussing Uncle Tom's Cabin seem almost evenly divided between the mistreated slave and the misrepresented southerner.
Although Ruth divulges few specifics about her choice of curriculum, the broad outlines of her course of instruction can be discerned, and the more general philosophical commitments to teaching and women's education are readily evident. The collection is especially useful for analyzing the peculiar position of a resident tutor on a southern plantation, and its value is enhanced by the fact that the tutor is both a disciple of Emma Willard, the most important antebellum women's educator, and an instructor in the home of one of South Carolina's largest slave holders and most flamboyant politicians. The personal negotiations between Ruth and the Williams girls, and the seething conflict she waged with their mother, Sarah Witherspoon Williams, are also worthy of note for depicting a rather unusual, intercultural world of women's relationships, mapped onto the uneven power dynamics of sectional differences, class differences, home and classroom.
At another level, the varying expectations of women -- as women -- in southern and northern society weave throughout the collection. As mother, daughter, sister, friend, teacher, and pupil, the issues surrounding gender expectations produced an endless series of conflicts within Ruth's mind and heart, and as much as gender formed a connection with other women, conflict over gender roles produced barriers as well. An impression also emerges through Ruth's varying experiences with the Williams' daughters and their near relatives, of women's social and intellectual life in South Carolina. Drawn into parties and balls during the holiday season, and enjoying more standard rounds of visits and church-going throughout the year, Ruth found herself alternately in the position of participant and observer, insider and outsider. Ultimately, this instability in position is what makes the collection such a valuable resource.