Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Remembering Rhys

I never met Rhys Isaac, but I lived surrounded by his personal notes in Williamsburg this past September. After serving my time reading books for comprehensive exams (including Isaac’s Transformation of Virginia), I embarked on a year of dissertation research. I started as a fellow at the John D. Rockefeller Library and was offered lodging in the Prentis Kitchen, a house furnished by Isaac and his wife. I made the three-day drive from Austin, Texas, to Williamsburg, arrived at dusk, and nudged my faithful car around the traffic barrier on Botetourt Street. After locating the house with the help of my new neighbor, Carson, I set about exploring the cottage, and it was then that I found my first Rhys Isaac epistle. This one was typed and pinned to the inside of the utility closet. It warned that “In heavy flooding,” the house’s phone lines, which came “out of a junction box (or whatever it’s called)” would be submerged in water. Isaac suggested that fellows should “have one or two bailing buckets handy when the repair man comes—and a wrench to turn the bolts securing the box.” This was my first introduction to the historic section of Colonial Williamsburg, and I was lucky enough during my month there to remain blissfully ignorant of flood conditions.

Rhys Isaac left similar notes all over the house, and that first night I combed the cottage looking for signs of his loopy script mixed with capital letters. my favorite turned out to be a one-page item in the attic, dated June 3, 2009, in which Isaac, pronouncing himself “of sound mind,” said that he did “Hereby entirely renounce, in favour of WHOEVER may take possession, all of my former possessions . . . remaining in this attic.” Since I am a graduate student, I was predictably pleased with the possibility of acquiring free stuff. Graduate students love free stuff; we are notoriously easy to bribe with free stuff—particularly food, but we’re not picky. The room was a trove of kettles and camping gear, and scholarly aids such as extra magnifying glasses and heating pads for lower back relief. In the main, however, I was simply struck by the generosity of an established scholar who created a residence for itinerant travelers such as myself and invited them to take away whatever they needed or found useful. Despite the fact that I was crouched in the hot, dusty attic of an otherwise uninhabited cottage and concerned about the potential flooding of junction boxes and acquisition of wrenches and so-called bailing buckets, his notes made me feel welcome. Not to belabor the point, but the living bequest he left in that attic seems an apt metaphor for the canon of his work. I didn’t need to meet Rhys Isaac; I felt as though I knew him by scholarly books as well as his humorous, thoughtful, and warm unscholarly scribbles.

Rachel Herrmann,
University of Texas at Austin