A ‘possum hunt, a thwarted visit to a “harlot,” and a fight between students armed with sticks and pistols may not mark the typical senior year of a Carolina undergraduate. All were episodes, however, in the student life of James L. Dusenbery, who graduated from UNC in 1842.
Now a digital edition of the diary Dusenbery kept during his senior year gives researchers and the general public an intimate glimpse into the life of the young scholar and his times.
“Verses and Fragments: The James L. Dusenbery Journal (1841-1842)” is the latest addition to the UNC Library’s Documenting the American South (DocSouth) digital publishing program. It is the result of a collaboration between the Library and scholar Erika Lindemann, associate dean for undergraduate curricula at UNC.
Lindemann, who retired in 2009 as a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, came across the diary in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library.
“We know very little about the daily lives of 19th-century students, especially those attending Southern universities,” said Lindemann, who also helped to develop the DocSouth collection “True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina.”
The diary, she said, is an important primary source for learning about the antebellum South and the history of education.
Plus, she asks, “Who could resist an opportunity to snoop through someone’s journal?”
The first part of the diary contains 27 poems copied from other sources and six excerpts from Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. Forty-four entries follow, providing, in Dusenbery’s words, “a weekly record of all the leading events of my life during our Senior year in College, together with our thoughts & reflections at the time.”
Dusenbery (1821-1886) came to UNC from Lexington, N.C. Like today’s students, said Lindemann, “he thoroughly enjoyed his senior year.”
In addition to presenting the diary as images of the manuscript pages paired with transcriptions, the site offers modules of related materials in the form of essays by Lindemann and several graduate students, and scanned items from Wilson Library and the Health Sciences Library. The modules explore Dusenbery’s immediate family; student life at UNC and the college’s debating societies; student taste in literature and music; and the study of medicine, which both Dusenbery and his brother Edwin pursued upon graduation.
The project was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities; the UNC Center for the Study of the American South; the College of Arts and Sciences; the Department of English and Comparative Literature; UNC’s University Research Council; and an anonymous Library donor.