In Love With Letters
The experts interviewed for this article came to their skills through study and experience, along with an abiding and avid interest in the history to be found in writings.
“Like many curators and librarians I know,” Chris Coover said, “what I find constantly fascinating about manuscripts is the sense of always looking at something new. Each document or letter is intrinsically unique.
“No matter how many letters of Andrew Jackson or Benedict Arnold or Lord Byron or Einstein I have handled, each new letter represents a whole new territory to be explored. This sense of discovery never fails. And that is true even of documents intrinsically similar to one another, such as ship’s passports, which are collected because they are signed by presidents. I like the challenge of seeking out the larger background, the hidden meanings and connections of a given document. This means I am sometimes overworked, occasionally out of my depth, but never bored.”
Stephen Roe admires “the power of the written word. To see the handwriting of a great work of art in the hand of the creator is fascinating and also informative. That is certainly the case of literary or musical manuscripts. However, even with a letter, the way the words are written and the way it is phrased often are very revelatory of the mind behind the words.”
Beatriz Hardy traces her love of history to her childhood, when “my father would take me to visit museums and historic sites. The Bicentennial occurred while I was in junior high and helped spark my interest in the eighteenth century. I was hopelessly hooked.
“There is just something incredibly special about holding a document and knowing that—250 years ago—the creator sat there writing it. To think, ‘Thomas Jefferson or George Washington held this paper and wrote on it, and now I’ve got it in my hands,’ is just really neat. It’s cool even if the author isn’t someone famous. I especially get goose bumps with manumission papers, when I think about what that meant: freeing someone from slavery.
“With enlistment papers from the American Revolution, I contemplate that these people were putting their lives on the line when nothing like this had ever succeeded in history. Today, we know the Revolution did win American independence; when they enlisted, the soldiers didn’t know how it was going to end up.”
To J W Hopkins Esq from J Dandridge:
Pamocra Aug: 30th 1793
I suppose by this time you have returned from the Springs & I hope the object of your journey thither is happily effected in restoring little Lucy’s health—
Before this reaches you, the posts & rails will have come to hand for inclosing the lott, unless a storm has or shall prevent them—Upon examining them when brought to the landing, I found them not so good as I intended—However the posts will last as long as any wood being of chestnut—All the rails were intended to be Chestnut likewise, but a mistake of Baker-mill caused some to be sort of pine. Whenever they decay, I will take care to have good rails sent up & put in their places—I have a carpenter in Richmond called Lyon’s Harry, whom I desired Baker-mill to employ in mortising the posts & preparing the rails—I will thank you to send for the said Harry & see that he does this—
I am obliged to Gloucester court unexpectedly to save a worthy Client of mine about £200—& know not how long I should be detained there: Of course I must resign the wish of accompanying you to GeorgeTown—These disappointments I am now so used to that they occasion no extraordinary distress: However they make me feel enough to wish I was a Gentleman & had nothing to do, that I might do what I pleased—
If you see any of my Friends in Fairfax, remember me to them—I send with this a letter for Doctr. Stuart, which you will convey—Also one for the Miss Custis’s—