Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 professor of American history at Harvard University, came to F&M to give a lecture as a part of the Phi Beta Kappa Distinguished Visiting Lecture series. The theme of her lecture was the life of Jane Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister.
Lepore explained that although the two siblings led extremely different lives, they were very similar and always maintained a profound relationship. While Franklin left his home and went on to write one of the most influential American autobiographies, Jane married at 15 and wrote primarily to her brother. Their correspondence started when she was 16 and ended when Franklin died.
Without the dedicated work of people like Lepore, Jane’s writings would not have survived. Lepore described how the people who came across the writings of Mecom soon found themselves to be deeply fascinated by this woman who was so bright, yet trapped in her own humble life.
Lepore compared Mecom’s life to Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment in the essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which the author imagines the life of Shakespeare’s fictional sister, Judith. Judith, despite possessing the same gift as her brother, did not enjoy as many opportunities as he did and ended up committing suicide. Though Mecom did not commit suicide, Lepore argued she also saw her talents hindered by her position as a woman. She did not have a room of her own until she was 69, and she had 12 children, 11 of whom died before she did.
Lepore talked about a 16-page booklet Mecom made, noting her children’s dates of birth and death. Lepore compared it to a parish register. She also mentioned the humble poetry Mecom also took part in, expressing her grief for her lost children on those few recovered pages.
Mecom, despite never having formally learned to write, expressed herself better than most American women at the time. During this period, it was obligatory for young boys to learn to read and write, but girls were only required to learn to read. Even so, Mecom herself had a true passion for reading. She not only corresponded with Franklin but also read and commented on books he sent to her.
Mecom was not afraid to disagree with her brother, despite his position. According to Lepore, through their letters, both Franklin and Mecom were trying to convert the other; he believed in enlightenment, while she believed in salvation.
Lepore also explained, during a question-and-answer session, how she came across her sources and what happened to Mecom’s writings throughout the years.
“After her death, Jane Mecom’s life as a writer, as obscure and humble as it was, ended,” Lepore said. “Her writing was not immortal.”
Fortunately, Mecom, in her will, gave the Book of Ages to her grandson, Josiah Flagg, who was a town clerk in Lancaster, Massachusetts. His daughter kept the book, and it stayed in the family until they decided to donate it to the New England Genealogical Society. Many of Mecom’s other writings were found by Jared Sparks, a 19th-century historian who greatly edited her texts before losing the originals. Through the telling of how she came across texts, books, and portraits connected to Mecom, Lepore expressed her deep interest in the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister. Her effort to do so, she explained, was not to shed more light on another aspect of Franklin’s personality, but to make Jane Mecom and her story more well-known and understood.