Personality and the Passage of Time in Handwritten Letters

Colin Newton is a writer from Los Angeles whose fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Ignatian, Westwind, Maudlin House, Red Planet Magazine, The Fabulist and Northridge Review. Newton was a 2018 Trillium Project resident at Oregon State University’s Shotpouch Cabin, and has years of experience as a freelance writer and writing instructor. Research conducted at the Rose Library is in support of a novel.

There is somehow something reassuring about the fact that, even more than 150 years ago, some people still had terrible handwriting.

I have recently been outlining a psychological novel set near the Georgia coast with a plot that spans generations, straddles the realms of dreams and reality, and delves into the history, architecture and tropes of the Southern Gothic style. It’s an audacious project, one made doubly so by the fact that I, a lifelong Westerner, have never been to the East Coast.

For that reason, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been granted access to the collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, and the Pitts Theology Special Library. The collections contain original letters, journals, articles, brochures, and other handwritten or typed materials stretching back to before the Civil War, with a particular focus on the people and state of Georgia. I wanted to see some of the events of the region from the last 200 years through the eyes of those who were there, of course – what was important to them, where did they travel, what did they eat – a little deeper than names and dates, but not unheard of in history classes. However, I also wanted to know what words they used when they revealed their thoughts, how they addressed social superiors compared to friends compared to lovers, how they folded their letters, the places they stole their stationary.

It was a fascinating experience, one that bordered on voyeurism. I got to know individuals by the way they crossed their Ts. I recognized decades by the use of lined or blank paper. Seeing the greeting: “It is with great pleasure that I lift my pen in answer to your kind letter…” was a signal to me that one particular letter writer had lived to pen another day. Some of them I got to know through multiple viewpoints. One letter writer had frequent correspondence with his sister – he downplayed army life, while she spoke notably in questions. In a separate memo, an army surgeon referred to him, stating that he would be lucky to keep a limb. The sister never mentioned whether he did or didn’t, but her diary describes him at home rather than the front line after that.

I also learned which writers I could comfortably skip, since I couldn’t make out a word of their prose. Some were neat. Some were not. Most were legible, but even if they weren’t, there was a subtle individuality that transcended the content itself. Names were less important than voice. Who underlined phrases to indicate importance? Who second guessed themselves and kept crossing things out?

Part of this was my design; after all, I was researching period atmosphere rather than dates, mood rather than facts. But part of it was natural to the medium. Order sometimes took a back seat to immediacy, as if those writers were cramming as much time into a single narrative space as possible. Perhaps we take it for granted right now that we frequently write (and post and view) in the present. Brevity increases chances of being viewed, in theory. Instant and accessible information can make communication seem like a flood; one story, and one second, can seem very much like the next. However, those writers did not write in the present by default but by necessity. A letter might be the only chance to communicate to another individual for months at a time, so every moment had to be forced into the present, whenever that present was for both writer and, later, recipient.

Those moments were still individual. In one particular letter from the 1850s – if my own handwriting is to be trusted – a woman named Rose composed a memory of a trip to New York (city? state?) for a recipient named Edward. She has since been pondering a “philosophical question” posed then, one for which she still has no answer. She also remembers someone looking quite “a sight” lugging around luggage. There was no curating the information for a wider audience, no background or context. None was needed, neither for them or me. It was enough to know that they knew.

These handwritten letters continued right up until the the 20th century or so, but later missive were increasingly typed. There was still voice, but it was less recognizable. There was still story, but it was less subtle. Admittedly some of it might have been what I was reading – the later documents were mostly official letters to and from journalists, educators and local politicians – but I missed the flamboyant Ts and crossed out phrases and, as hard as it might be to believe, words I couldn’t make out.

Some of my thoughts might be because the Rose Library made me an unexpected joiner in the handwritten conversation. Library staff provided colored paper and pencils for note taking, and the results of my research are a small stack of green papers, crudely numbered and dated, displaying my poor understanding of how to use space.

After I exited the reading room following my first day of research, the young woman who had checked me in asked if I’d found what I’d been looking for. I told her a little about my project, and how I’d been reading letters and journals from the 19th century to get a feel for the language.

“You must have better eyes than me,” she said with a laugh.

My response was to hold up my own notes: 21st century chicken scratch.