As you get acquainted with the general characteristics of the personal
texts in front of you, begin to get a sense of what we can think of
as the cast of characters and the main "plot" that inspired
the writing. In a diary, we must depend on the diarist to introduce
us to the people in his life. It often is a useful measure of his approach
to diary-keeping to see whether family and friends are introduced or
whether it is left to us to figure out who they are. Letter-writers
seldom introduce themselves and others, because, unlike most diarists
who at least imagine an "outside" reader, few correspondents
thought we would be reading their mail. Nonetheless, it helps to try
at the outset to get a sense of who friends and family members are and
how they address each other, especially if you are using unedited manuscript
or facsimile letters. Some families rarely use given names in either
salutation or signature. Your reading of these letters will go slowly
until you learn, by context and handwriting, to determine the identity
of "Dear Son" or "Your loving daughter." Similarly,
many upper class families employed odd nicknames ("Knobby"
or "Bootsie"), and often adolescent girls in the nineteenth
century addressed each other as characters from literature or classical
mythology ("Rowena" or "Athena"), making it a challenge
sometimes to figure out who is who.
In terms of "plot," a quick, broad survey of a collection
of letters or a diary can be helpful in revealing whether a particular
circumstance inspired the writing, and thus whether there is a large-scale,
dramatic "story" holding the pages and the correspondents
together. Many Civil War diaries, for instance, like those of Virginians
Lucy Breckinridge and Lucy Buck, begin and end with the war, thus introducing
us to a writer who inscribes her life as a story in neat parallel with
the national conflict and then exits. Similarly, letters from African
American soldiers fighting against the Confederacy in Edward Redkeys
collection, or those from New England mill women in Thomas Dublins
volume, clearly are inspired by the writers desire to map the
huge changes in their lives. Quite differently, other diaries
and even more letters are plotted around the sheer ordinariness
of the writers life, such as the journals of Maine midwife Martha
Ballard in the early nineteenth-century and of North Carolina farmer
Basil Thomasson at mid-century. In either case, though, surveying the
text for a sense of the main narrative thread is a good way to prompt
questions about the text as you begin to read more closely.
And while you are at it, keep an eye out for language that puzzles you.
When first looking at nineteenth-century letters, for instance, many
modern readers are puzzled by some correspondents interjection
of "D.V." in the midst of certain sentences expressing hope
("by now, D.V., you are safely at home") when these letters
are not the recipients initials. Then, finally, one writer solves
the puzzle for us by spelling it out: Deo Volente, God willing.
Such puzzles will help you to be alert to the fact that the meaning
of certain words or phrases is coded (to say in the mid-nineteenth-century
that a woman had "taken a cold" almost always meant that she
was pregnant) or has changed over time ("to have conversation with"
a man or a woman in the early nineteenth century was a phrase which
usually meant "to have sex with," whereas the word "intercourse"
did not have a sexual connotation until the end of the century).
The excerpts below are from the 1855 diary of Mary F. Henderson, a planter
class woman living near Salisbury, North Carolina.*
Read these entries and think about how to figure out who the characters
are in the diary, what is the plot, and what are the implications of
August 11, 1855: I hope Fanny who is very sick with Pneumonia may recover,
she seems very weak. I sent Len to Town this morning for a guire
of letter paper he also brought me a note from Mr. Myers....
August 12: No church today...Dr. Nesbitt found Fanny rather better this
morning he cupped her again I have very little faith in
Doctors for our own children They either get scared or something
I cant tell what Their prescriptions do no good
....I hope Fanny will get well....
August 13: Fanny still a very sick little child. Dr. Nesbitt attending
her twice a day Sister Jane came down alone in the carriage quite
early and spent the day sociably with us brought us a very large
bouquet of beautiful flowers roses....
August 14: ...Fanny seems rather better, much less fever but is slightly
salivated which I always dread especially in children and when
one is as weak as she, the Dr. blistered her this morning it
drew well, but she is very hoarse and takes but little nourishment....
August 16: ...Poor little Fanny continues very ill, desperately so I
fear, she has been sick now a fortnight....poor little Fanny looks wretchedly
I fear her case is hopeless I have nursed my own children
through such desperate attacks and seen so many die it rends my heart
to witness the sickness of even a little servant, she is a nice pretty
smart little girl and I should grieve to see her die. She has been faithfully
and well nursed by Eliza but life hands by a tender thread....
August 17: ...Our little servant Fanny seems desperately sick to me,
more fever this evening and I do not think she has spoken for a week,
looks sensible but never even calls for water, frets and cries a good
deal, has a tight and apparently painful cough....
August 18: ...Poor little Fanny is worse today I have no hope,
she is a nice smart little servant and one I shall regret to lose
her attack has been a singular one, she has not spoken one word for
several days but looks bright and intelligent....I fear Fanny will not
last through the night she is cold and much worse, has every appearance
of dying to me what unfortunate people we are she was
5 years old in June a few weeks younger than my first little daughter
[deceased] My childrens births and deaths are associated
with almost everything I see and oftentimes with other persons children....How
often death visits this family either the black or white....Eliza has
nursed Fanny most untiringly and if she dies it will not be from any
neglect on her part, mine, or the Doctors for she has been well
August 20: ...Fanny seemed better last night her tongue looks
well, it really is a very singular attack she eats freely but
does not speak one word....she will recover the Dr. thinks....
August 22: ...Fanny is better and I believe will now get well she spoke
this morning Dr. Nesbitt has managed her case skillfully
he attended my other children and they all died I feel
as if my heart would break....