A final strategy remains in our reading of diaries and letters. This
strategy seeks corroboration and context for personal texts by stepping
back from them and asking broader questions of time and place. Sometimes
this is difficult to do. It is easy to grow accustomed to living "inside"
the world created by peoples letters and dairies, inside the events
and relationships which you have worked to take as seriously as your
own. But now the goal is the important historical one of understanding
how the passage of time mattered to them and to us, and to explore how
our understanding of their lives might be deepened by seeing them in
a wider historical frame. Indeed, as Marilyn Motz observes of women
diarists of the nineteenth-century who read widely and shared ideas,
"Far from being provincial, these women used that most private
form, the diary, to establish themselves as citizens of the world."
First, ask in what ways the writers themselves seem most aware of a
larger context and of time passing, not only in terms of days and weeks
but also in larger spans. Do they characterize their own time as an
era or a turning point in historical time? If so, how? If not, what
might this suggest about their sense of their place in history? Certainly
diarists during war time often reflect on momentous changes they anticipate
will happen. Does the writer show an interest in possible future readers?
Does she speculate about the future in any way that sheds light on her
sense of being "from" a given time and yet having a grasp
Along these same lines, you will want to corroborate whatever you can
of writers assertions of fact, depending on how deeply your research
takes you. If a correspondent mentions seeing President Wilson on a
train in Baltimore, Maryland, on a certain day in October, 1917, it
is important to see if you can find other sources which corroborate
Wilsons presence there on that day. Or, if a diarist makes a claim
about urban violence in New York City in the summer of 1863, it is useful
to consult other sources official documents, newspapers, other
observers to give perspective to what the diarist says. Again,
depending on how substantial you want to make your study, these sources
can expand outward indefinitely to such varied sources as census
reports, government documents, photographs, maps, oral histories
and other diaries and letters. Two important things happen when you
seek corroboration and context. You widen the angle of historical vision,
creating not only a more complete picture of "what happened,"
but also deepening the interpretation of all similar happenings. And
you get a sharper sense of how observant or reliable (or not) is your
diarist or letter-writer, and thus a clearer idea of her as a historical
observer and actor.
As you do these things, of course, read the texts with specific reference
to your knowledge of a larger or different context. Read "from
the future," so to speak. Although you have spent time entering
into peoples personal worlds in the past understanding
their language, concerns, relationships, and events it is now
important to re-assert your own time-bound perspective as a complementary
but critical check on the view from the past. Emily Dickinsons
much-quoted remark that "a Letter always feels to me like immortality
because it is the mind alone without the corporeal friend" wonderfully
evokes a certain timeless quality of letters. But it is up to us to
interpret letters and their writers as fully as we can in term of their
own era, even if they did not. Do the diarists and letter-writers know
about and respond to what you know were the far-reaching issues of their
day? If your diarist is a non-southerner traveling through the South
of the 1850s, for instance, does he mention slaves and slavery? If your
letter-writers are well-to-do, urban women corresponding in 1920, do
they mention the new womens suffrage? If they live in St. Louis
during the cholera epidemic of 1849, do they mention it? Ask "how"
they talk about it, as well: curiously? empirically? dismissively? And
if the writers are silent about such "big" events known to
you, it is useful to ask why this might be, what it might mean, and
how you can go on to deepen your own knowledge through further research.
The object, of course, is not to condescend to them but to use your
own particular historical context and skills to give further shape to
letter or diary passage can tell us a great deal about a particular
time and place in the past, but only if we know what other evidence
to consult in order to make sense of its puzzling references and place
its ideas into larger contexts.
This text is an 1856 letter written by prominent South Carolina planter
and politician James Henry Hammond to his adult son Harry. The elder
Hammond was ill at the time and wrote in part to make his wishes known
to his son about various matters of business and household should he
grow worse and die. The letter is striking for its bluntness about sex
and offspring with two particular women named Sally and Louisa Johnson
who were slaves of Hammond; in particular, Hammond notes one of the
mixed-race children, a youth named Henderson.*
[Note: Hammond spells believe as "beleive"] Read the
letter below and click on the highlighted sections to consider the many
avenues for historical exploration that this letter opens.
In the last will I made I left to you....Sally Johnson the mother of
Louisa & all the children of both. Sally says Henderson is my child.
It is possible, but I do not beleive it. Yet
act on hers rather than my opinion. Louisas first child
may be mine. I think not. Her second I beleive is mine. Take
care of her & her children who are both of your blood if
not of mine & and of Henderson. The
services of the rest will I think compensate for indulgence to these.
I cannot free these people & send them North. It would be cruelty
to them. Nor would I like that any
but my own blood should own as slaves my own blood or Louisa. I
leave them to your charge, beleiving that you will best appreciate &
most independently carry out my wishes in regard to them. Do not let
Louisa or any of my children or possible children be the Slaves of Strangers.
in the family will be their happiest earthly condition.
about what this letter means?