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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 923

Papers of Susan W. McAllester, 1903-1994 (inclusive), 1950-1994 (bulk)


Correspondence and diaries of Susan McAllester, editor and photographer.


  • Creation: 1903-1994
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1950-1994

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Susan W. McAllester is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


10.22 linear feet ((24 + 1/2 file boxes) plus 1 folio+ folder, 11 photograph folders, 1 folio+ photograph folder)

The papers of Susan McAllester document her personal life. The collection includes McAllester's diaries, letters, and photographs. The majority of this collection consists of diaries, which span 40 years of McAllester's life. She documented her experiences as the wife of a Wesleyan University faculty member, and often recorded her thoughts and feelings after socializing with other faculty members. McAllester also wrote about problems in her marriage, the daily challenges of parenting, and the frustration she felt over being a housewife. McAllester's diaries also record her emotions in regards to her family, including her aunt, Minnie "Minky" Keyes, her father and mother, Chesley and Elizabeth (Sparrow) Watkins, and her brothers.

In her travel diaries, Susan McAllester documents the many camping road trips across the country taken by the family while David McAllester was researching and recording Navajo music. Other travel diaries reflect the many trips Susan and David McAllester took together around the world.

Also found in these papers are letters from Susan McAllester to David McAllester, which describe their courtship, the early years of their marriage during World War II, and later, the health and activities of their children. This collection also contains letters to David McAllester from his mother, Maude McAllester, which were written while he was attending college, and document the McAllester's family life in detail, including the activities of his brothers and his sister.

Most of the folder titles and the arrangement were created by the archivist; McAllester's titles, when used, appear in quotation marks.

Series I, DIARIES, 1903-1919, 1950-1991, n.d. (#1.1-14.4), includes 65 diaries written over the course of 40 years by Susan McAllester. McAllester wrote long, detailed entries regarding her personal life, although some events in her life, such as her extramarital relationships, are not recorded while they occurred, but are reflected on years later. Diary entries include topics such as David McAllester's work at Wesleyan University in ethnomusicology and anthropology, building backyard tipis, the weather, extramarital affairs and marital problems, housekeeping, gardening, breeding their pet cats, and her cancer diagnoses.

Susan McAllester also wrote about her children, detailing their school work, health, and behavior at home; attending faculty dinners and cocktail parties, describing the menu, other guests present, and her changing feelings about being there; her father, Chesley Watkins, Sr.'s mental illness and hospitalization; editing work she did for Norman "Nobby" Brown; and her unhappiness and depression, which she attributed to her role as a faculty housewife. After her retirement from College English, Susan McAllester reflects on feeling unneeded in the professional world, her subsequent roles in the Friends Society and the and the Monterey News, and her frustration with David McAllester after his retirement in 1987. Later diaries include postcards, programs, cards, clippings, photographs, and drawings pasted into the pages.

This series also includes Susan McAllester's travel diaries, which document the McAllester's trips across the United States and around the world, including an extended journey, which spanned from September 1972 through May 1973, to Japan, Indonesia, Jakarta, India, Greece, and England (#7.3-7.6). McAllester comments on sightseeing, friends, expenses, and occasionally photography.

Also found in this series are two diaries written by McAllester's aunt, Minnie "Minky" Keyes (#1.1-1.2). This series also contains a notebook kept by David McAllester on Native American customs (#14.4). This series is arranged with the Keyes diaries listed first, followed by a chronological list of Susan McAllester's diaries. David McAllester's notebook is listed last.

Series II, CORRESPONDENCE, 1925-1994, n.d. (#14.5-25.5, F+D.1), includes Susan and David McAllester's letters with family, friends, and colleagues. Included in this series are letters written to Susan McAllester by her mother and father, Elizabeth and Chesley Watkins, Sr., after she was sent to live with her aunt Minnie "Minky" Keyes and uncle Clinton "Skeezy" Keyes in New York City during the 1920s (#14.9-15.3). This series also contains letters written by Susan McAllester to her aunt Minnie "Minky" Keyes. Topics include attending Radcliffe College (#14.6); her social life; shopping and expenses; nursing during World War II in Middletown, Connecticut; conscientious objectors; and friends and family serving in World War II (#14.7).

Susan McAllester's letters to David McAllester, which span 31 years, can also be found in this series. Early letters describe visits to his family in Everett, Massachusetts; their courtship; movies watched; her classes at Radcliffe College; travel arrangements; their future together; the weather; the Radcliffe Choral Society; and his studies at Columbia University. Topics in later letters include working with the Civilian Public Service, World War II, their love of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, books read, friends and family, health issues, the activities of their children, and family life.

This series also includes copies of Susan McAllester's outgoing letters to her friends and family. Subjects found throughout include travel, family life, concerts, books read, pets, the weather, gardening, and mutual friends. Other topics consist of nursing during World War II, emotional support for her son Burling after he came out as a gay man, and his subsequent hostility towards his sister, Bonner, and his parents (#15.10), her cancer diagnosis (#17.3), and her Alice in Wonderland adaptation "Alice and the Queen" (#17.5).

Also found here are letters from David McAllester's mother, Maude McAllester, who wrote to him frequently while he was away from home, either while attending college, or working at archaeological digs during the summer. Topics include scholarships received, visits made, home life, relationships, other family members, health issues, and pets. Letters to David McAllester from other family members, friends, and colleagues include information regarding archaeological digs; Native American music (#24.6); travel plans; summer camp; health issues; Uncle, Clinton Keyes's disapproval of Susan and David McAllester's wedding plans (#17.11); singing for Franklin Roosevelt (#24.5); the Works Progress Administration (#24.5); and the Religious Society of Friends.

The majority of David McAllester's letters in this series were received in their original envelopes; these were arranged by the archivist by correspondent when there were multiple letters; single letters were filed together into folders titled "Incoming letters." This series is arranged with Susan McAllester's letters listed first, followed by David McAllester's letters.

Series III, PHOTOGRAPHS, 1908-1987, n.d. (#PD.1-PD.11), includes photographs taken by Susan McAllester. Images include dwellings on Native American reservations and portraits of Native Americans. Some images were published in the McAllester's book Hogans: Navajo Houses and House Songs. This series also contains candid photographs taken at McAllester family events, such as Bonner McAllester and Joe Baker's wedding. Also found in this series are portraits of Chesley Watkins, Jr., and members of the Sparrow family not taken by Susan McAllester. This series is arranged alphabetically.

Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online.


Susan (Watkins) McAllester was born on July 9, 1919, to Chesley and Elizabeth Bonner (Sparrow) Watkins in Statesville, North Carolina. In the 1920s, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle, Clinton "Skeezy" and Minnie "Minky" (Sparrow) Keyes in New York City, where she attended the Horace Mann School. The Keyes family, along with Susan McAllester, spent most summers at Clinton "Skeezy" Keyes's family farm in Monterey, Massachusetts. Susan McAllester attended both Radcliffe College (B.A. 1940), and Columbia University Teachers College (M.A. 1941). While at Radcliffe College, Susan McAllester sang with the Radcliffe Choral Society. During a joint performance with Harvard University's Glee Club, she met David Park McAllester (B.A. 1938).

Susan and David McAllester were married on September 1, 1940. They had two children, Bonner McAllester (born 1949) and Burling McAllester (1952-2017). During World War II, David McAllester was a conscientious objector, working for the Civilian Public Service in a forestry camp in Cooperstown, New York, and at the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1943 through 1944, Susan McAllester worked as a nurse or nursing assistant at the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown, Connecticut.

After the war, David McAllester returned to Columbia University to finish his Ph.D. in anthropology. In 1947, the McAllesters moved permanently to Middletown, Connecticut, when David McAllester joined the anthropology department at Wesleyan University, where he subsequently co-founded the Ethnomusicology program.

In 54 years of marriage, Susan McAllester accompanied David McAllester on many journeys across the United States and around the world, including numerous trips to Arizona and New Mexico, as well as to Hawaii, Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, and China. Many of these trips were related to David McAllester's study of ethnomusicology.

During the 1950s, the McAllesters co-founded the Middletown Monthly Meeting of Friends in Connecticut, as well as the South Berkshire Monthly Meeting of Friends in Monterey, Massachusetts in 1984. Over the years, Susan McAllester served as clerk, recording clerk, newsletter editor, and librarian for the South Berkshire Monthly Meeting of Friends.

While she had received postgraduate training to be a teacher, Susan McAllester did not work outside the home while her children were young. She took on part-time work editing the work of philosopher and Wesleyan University professor Norman "Nobby" Brown throughout the 1950s, and continued to work part-time as an editor during the 1960s. In 1966, Susan McAllester became the poetry editor for College English, the journal of the National Council of Teachers of English. In 1971, National Council of Teachers of English published A Case for Equity: Women in English Departments, edited by Susan McAllester. She retired in 1978.

In 1979, Susan and David McAllester built a retirement home on land that had been given to them by Minnie "Minky" Keyes, in Monterey, Massachusetts. David McAllester was semi-retired from Wesleyan University, and taught only one semester a year until 1986. In 1980, they published Hogans: Navajo Houses and House Songs, with David writing the text, and Susan McAllester as photographer. During the 1980s, Susan McAllester was active in the Monterey, Massachusetts League of Women Voters; Land Preservation Trust; Democratic Town Committee; and was photography editor for the Monterey News.

In 1992, Susan McAllester, was diagnosed with cancer. She died on August 31, 1994.


The collection is arranged in three series:

  1. Series I. Diaries, 1903-1919, 1950-1991, n.d. (#1.1-14.4)
  2. Series II. Correspondence, 1925-1994, n.d. (#14.5-25.5, F+D.1)
  3. Series III. Photographs, 1908-1987, n.d. (#PD.1-PD.11)

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession number: 2015-M118

The papers of Susan W. McAllester were given to the Schlesinger Library by her daughter, Bonner McAllester, in July 2015.

Related Material:

There is related material at the Special Collections and Archives, Wesleyan University; see David McAllester Papers, 1940-1996 (2002-18).


Donors: Bonner McAllester

Accession number: 2015-M118

Processed by: Cat Lea Holbrook

The following item has been transferred to the Schlesinger Library books and printed materials collection:

  1. Hogans: Navajo Houses and House Songs by David and Susan McAllester, 1980

Processing Information

Processed: December 2017

By: Cat Lea Holbrook, with assistance from Margaret Dalton.

Genre / Form



McAllester, Susan W., 1919-1994. Papers of Susan W. McAllester, 1903-1994 (inclusive), 1950-1994 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by gifts from the Zetlin Sisters Fund and the Jane Rainie Opel '50 Fund.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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