Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Back in Boston: Other People's Mail

Imagine the fall rolls around and my students and I are playing "my summer vacation." Sally went to the Virgin Islands to play Carnival and visit her folks. Rufus hiked the Himalayas, and Joan studied abroad in Prague. It's my turn and, giddy, I say, "I spent the summer in a library!" It probably wouldn't win me any awesome professor points, would it?

And yet, there's something wonderful about the library I spent the past 2 weeks in, researching for my book project. The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is a cool, quiet marble shrine to everything that means anything to people who want to preserve early American culture. The first time I sat down under the librarian's watchful eyes to touch Abigail Adams' letters -- to trace the worry for her husband in her slanted penmanship, to wonder if the paper's softness came, at least in part, from John's propensity to read her missives over and over again -- I became addicted. The yellowed pages, smudges, stains, misspellings, crossouts and cracked red wax seals made the clean, crisp, white, ellided, footnoted, neatly edited published versions of these letters look like lies. The letter's body often tells as much about the correspondence as the words on the page do. There is no substitute for the Real Thing.

This time around, I was visiting the MHS to read loyalist's letters -- you know, women who sided for the "wrong team," the Brits, in the Revolutionary War. And by the end of it, I was with the Tories. According to their version of the story, the Patriots were undisciplined, ungrateful, unfaithful children. The American soldiers were rude, vile, indecent men who barged into women's homes, often drunk, to make a spectacle of themselves before stealing wood and valuables to take with them back to camp. Those that fled the war took agonizing journeys to Nova Scotia to establish towns like Halifax that would become safe havens for British sympathizers, but they often did so while leaving behind brothers, husbands, and sons, who stayed behind to defend land the families would eventually have taken from them by the eighteenth-century version of Homeland Security (then called Committees of Safety).

At any rate, the whole trip got me to thinking about the death of letter-writing, and how letters and journals, like this blog, are at best semipermanent, so easily taken down and deleted that I ache for the archivists and historians who will want to know anything about millenials in the Digital Age. What will we leave behind?

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