Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Box of Letters

Historian Martha Hodes presents an interesting tale of a poor white New England woman, Eunice Richardson Stone Connolly (1831-1877), whose husband takes her from her mill work in the North, moves her South just before the Civil War where he fights and dies for the Confederacy, and who later remarries a “man of color” and goes to live in Grand Cayman. In The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), we also learn that Hodes discovered this fascinating historical character in a “box of letters” at Duke University’s special collections and archives (p. 18).

Our intrepid historian also provides a story about how Connolly’s papers survived in the face of great odds and how Connolly utilized letter writing to make her way in the world. Often utilizing inferior paper and poor ink, a member of her family saves her letters and a descendant, strapped for cash, sells the collection years later to a dealer from whom they make their way to the university where they now reside. Hodes writes another in a growing array of books exploring the nature of letters and other historical documents, acknowledging that “letters are nonetheless peculiar historical documents that must also be read for what is evaded or unspoken,” with their selective telling of events and observations (p. 28).

Through the book we gain glimpses into the nature of letters and documents produced by women in the middle nineteenth century. Reflecting on Connolly’s letters at the outset of the Civil War, Hodes writes, “Divine will and protection, ungrateful hearts struggling for gratitude. These were the topics that emptied woman’s ink bottles when the fighting commenced” (p. 105). We also learn about the choices made in the letters written and sent, as Hodes depicts Connolly’s testament, after learning of her husband’s death, where in one letter she confesses, “Prehaps I shall not send this, for I write you a good many letters that I don’t send. When I feel lonesome and bad as if I must see you, I sit down and write, then the next day burn them up.” Hodes interprets this as “her sadness felt too intense to preserve in a letter.” (p. 156). And, at one point, Hodes speculates a bit about why there may be some gaps in the family archives. Hodes notes that there are three years of correspondence missing, 1867-1869, coinciding with when Eunice was most likely being courted by the sea captain of African descent from the British West Indies: “Maybe the packet of letters from 1867, 1868, and most of 1869 met the mundane fate of deterioration beneath a leaking attic roof, or maybe they were discarded by an uninterested descendant during a vigorous New England spring cleaning. But it is possible too that someone removed the letters from the family papers and hid them away, knowing that the bundles from those years contained the offending information about an ancestor’s taboo romance, for if Eunice’s courtship with Smiley Connolly began sometime after 1865, the family correspondence would surely have touched upon – or agonized over – such an astonishing turn of events. Or maybe the letters were purposefully destroyed, the facts and emotions therein deemed best forgotten by someone disgusted by – or fearful of – all they revealed” (p. 176).

Hodes mentions other times when documentary gaps seem to appear in the family archives. She mentions how letters from Eunice back to New England declined because of the uneven mail service to Grand Cayman. Still, Eunice kept writing: “Over the years, Eunice continued to hope that her family in New England would appreciate the degree of happiness she had achieved in the West Indies, and to this end she kept writing letters. The silence that emanated in return made for Eunice’s most consistent source of discontent during her Cayman years” (p. 234).

It is not my intention to suggest that this is a history about letters and other documents, but it is a very self-reflective work about how a history can be crafted through the use of surviving archival documentation. However, Hodes writes more about the process of interacting with sources than most historians. Although she is seeking to tell a compelling story, she wants Eunice to speak throughout; near the beginning of the book, Hodes describes an interesting approach to using Eunice’s letters: “I have rendered Eunice’s words in italic type, and without quotation marks, in an effort to integrate her perspective more seamlessly into the story” (p. 13). And it seems generally to work as she intends. The concluding chapter whereby the author recounts her many trips to Cayman, meetings with family members there and elsewhere, attending family reunions, and searches in archives provides a window into the nature of archival research. The historian also recounts her research trips through New England and in the Duke University archives, examining the provenance of the papers where she discovered Eunice. Through her searches she manages to connect with the individual who sold the letters in 1965 to a dealer: “I was . . . astonished to realize that of all Eunice’s siblings, of all the children of those siblings, and of all their children and grandchildren, the historical records had led me, with concerted, though not extraordinary, effort, to the one, great-grandchild who had once been the keeper of what were now called the Lois Wright Richardson Davis Papers” (p. 291).