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The best overall strategy in reading personal texts is to have patience for their homely and fragmentary nature, to be sympathetic but critical of the writers, and to be ready to be surprised. There are particular strategies, though, which help structure this journey. Before you begin reading closely, size up the basic, objective characteristics of the texts in front of you. Consider, first, their materiality — that is, the characteristics of diaries and letters as objects. When we hold them in our hands, personal texts from the past make an impression even before we see what they have to say — by the texture, condition, and heft of the paper, by the style of the handwriting (akin to a tone of voice), and by the way these things suggest the writer’s care or haste, depth and surface, and what has happened to the folded sheets of a letter or the bound volume of a diary in the time between the last inscription and now. The materiality of letters and diaries thus suggests questions not only about the circumstances of their creation, but also about social class (is the paper the ordinary lined, “blue” sheets of common mid-nineteenth century use or is it embossed and edged?), gender (women and men were schooled to have very different handwriting) and about the presence or absence of an array of nibs, papers, envelopes, letter cases, letter clips, writing desks, and other objects associated with writing among well-to-do Americans of the era.

Considering the materiality of personal texts leads us to think not only about the commercialization of writing and its varied social settings, but also about how Americans cherished letters and diaries as objects, secreting diaries away in hidden places (or leaving them out to be "discovered"), keeping letters, with "the bodily trace of a correspondent" clinging to the handwriting, in William Decker’s words, in one’s pocket or under one’s pillow. The physical object itself came to represent the absent person’s touch and nearness. Nathaniel Hawthorne became a famous author, but he spoke like countless other correspondents when he wrote to his sweetheart Sophia Peabody in 1840 that "the only ray of light" in his dreary day "was when [I] opened thy letter....I have folded it to my heart, and ever and anon it sends a thrill through me....It seems as if thy head were leaning against my breast."*

These aspects of personal texts open up the key distinction between an original manuscript and a published form of the text. Of course, if the text in front of you is not an original manuscript, you cannot personally size up its materiality, although sometimes editors of texts will tell you about the size and shape of the original, or include images of sample pages. Many Web presentations of letters and diaries include digital representations of manuscripts as well as typed transcriptions, giving users a useful sense of handwriting and pagination. If the text in front of you is in manuscript, there is a greater chance (though no guarantee) that it exists as the author left it. If published, whether on paper or electronically, then we have to consider that portions of it may have been altered, amended, or left out completely, either by the author or by an editor.

In short, it is important to ask who, including the author, has been involved in creating this text now in front of us. What can we know of their motives and intentions? Family members, for instance, are well known for removing embarrassing or unflattering portions of diaries and letters before they agree to have them published. But other editors, too, make judgments about readability or relevance which lead them to change the original text. There are many excellent published diaries and letter collections, of course, which have been edited with faithfulness to the original and — very important — with candor about what has been omitted or changed, and why. But, as historian C. Vann Woodward discovered when he edited the manuscript of Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Civil War diary, some editors of published diaries have greatly altered the texts. Woodward found that the editors of two previous, much-used editions of the Chesnut diary had changed many of her words, moved entire passages from one place to another, and even wholly made up other passages. Reputable editors in print or on the Web do not do this, of course, and they are clear about changes generally considered appropriate: correcting spelling, "modernizing" capitalization and punctuation, and, more invasively, cutting out "repetitive" passages for reasons of space. Such carefully (and openly) edited published texts can be relied upon in a general way, but if a certain diary or collection of letters is a centerpiece of your project, you should look at the original if possible.

A related way to initially size up the basic dimensions of the collection of letters or a diary, particularly if you are working with the original manuscript, is to ask questions about its completeness and inclusiveness. Some of these questions can be answered by a quick scan of the pages; others must wait for further research on your part. Ask, is this volume the complete diary or are there other volumes or entries elsewhere? Is this letter a draft or "practice" letter, or is it the one actually mailed? Who saved the diary and why? Who collected the letters and why? As Janet Altman observes, letters may have been collected for opposite reasons, "either to prevent further reading, or to extend the circle of readers." Is there evidence of other readers (family members, archivists) handling or marking the text? Has the diarist herself added retrospective marginal notes (many diarists look back and criticize their younger selves or annotate their observations), scratched out passages or cut out pages?*

A sense of basic chronology is important, too: what is the period of time covered by the text? It helps you to plan your reading to quickly scan the pages ahead to see if the number of diary entries or letters changes because of major historical events. For instance, if an American text includes the years 1861-1865 it is likely that the number of letters will increase and the diary entries cluster around the events of the Civil War. Does the diarist clearly distinguish one day from another? How frequent are the entries? Collections of letters, even if they are complete or nearly so, differ in terms of their timing and sequence. One collection of 100 family letters, for example, might cover only six months, with letters flying fast and thick; another family’s 100 letters, though, might stretch over 10 years, imparting a very different sense of what we can expect to know about the immediacy and texture of the correspondents’ lives. It is worth a quick look ahead, too, to see if one correspondent’s letters dominate the collection, or if the letters are more like a dialogue or even a full conversation among many people. Along the same lines, if the writer regularly notes the place from which he is writing ("Provincetown, Rhode Island") it is useful to scout in advance any upcoming changes ("Athens, Greece"). And it is worth leafing quickly through a set of manuscript letters (or, if possible, page through electronic facsimiles) looking for markers of important events: letters acknowledging a death in the family, for instance, often were written on black-edged paper in the nineteenth century; letters announcing a marriage tend to be embossed or differently sized – both easy to spot in a sheaf of papers.

Most people read diaries after they’ve been edited and published in book form or online, thus relying on the choices made by editors who prepare manuscript diaries for publication. Those choices invariably influence the way readers read the texts, and sometimes the choices can be quite drastic. The following two diary excerpts are taken from a few days apart in the February 1861 diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, member of South Carolina’s planter elite and wife of U.S. Senator and slave-owning planter James C. Chesnut, Jr. One passage was edited for publication by a novelist and the other was edited by a professional historian. Read the excerpts and try to figure out which was edited by the novelist and which by the historian:

Diary Entries One and Two

Diary Entries One and Two with Commentaries