Whether you are reviewing a letter, journal, postcard or other writing of an ancestor, there are several strategies for evaluating and gaining the most from the total presentation. Not only are you looking at the written word but you are also looking at paper, images and handwriting. All provide clues and information about your ancestor. The following represents different angles from which to view the writings of your ancestors.
Consider impressions by look and feel. As you hold the writings in your hands, they make an impression before you even read the words. You can glean information from the texture, condition, paper type, style of writing — which suggests the writer's care or haste — depth, surface, care of the folded sheets of a letter or the binding of the diary, and the time between inscriptions. The following clues can help you begin to make guesses about the writer, such as what their social class might have been:
- Is the paper the ordinary lined "blue" sheets of common mid-19th century use or is it embossed and edged?
- Women and men were schooled to have very different handwriting.
- The document might exhibit an array of nibs (the sharpened point of a quill pen; a pen point), papers, envelopes, letter cases, letter clips, writing desks and other objects associated with writing among well-to-do Americans of the era. Absence of these features may indicate that the writer was of a lower economic standing.
Becoming acquainted with the characters. In a diary, we depend on the writer to introduce us to the individuals in the writer's life. Sometimes persons are named while other times we are left to figure them out for ourselves. When it comes to letters, the introductions to characters are hit and miss. The writer wasn't writing to us but usually to one who knew the people being mentioned.
Try to understand who the friends and family members were, especially if you are using unedited communications. Sometimes a family rarely uses given names in correspondence. In such cases, start out slow until you are able to determine the identity of "Dear Son" or "Your loving Daughter." The same holds true for nicknames. I know during my father's years as a youth (1930s and ’40s), it was common to have nicknames such as Frip, Jiggs and Stu.
What inspired the plot? As you survey the writing, think about whether a particular circumstance inspired the writing. Is there a large-scale "story" holding the writings together? We find this type of inspiration in writings during the period of war or changes in one's life. In other cases, diaries — and especially letters — are focused on the ordinariness of the writer's life. 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.
Look for unique language. Think about your use of instant messaging. In our writing we use words, phrases and acronyms to help us communicate faster. For example, TTYL (talk to you later), :) (smile), K (okay), TY (thank you), and Ditto (I agree). Just like us, our ancestors also had interjections into their correspondence that stood for something else. 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 recipient's 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. For example, to say in the mid-19th century that a woman had "taken a cold" almost always meant that she was pregnant.
How does the writer relate the experiences of life? Personal texts are usually begun by the accounts of key events that occur over time and are important enough to write about, such as a death, a child leaving home, a marriage, a natural disaster, work and so forth.
The story of events also reveals the interrelationships of the writers, friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. The relationships shape our understanding of how the writer fits into the events and through which eye we see the interpretation of what is written.
Most letters are written by "news" or are rich with events, which the writer tries to describe in detail. You may see how the writer describes (or filters) the same event or news to different people in his life. For example, an experience about crossing a river and almost drowning may be written in full detail for a friend, but to a mother the description may be only that the writer became wet when crossing a river.
In letters, you will find other parties sensitive to the absence of one another. Some, however, focus on the distance apart, while other letters focus on bringing one closer together — such as in the case of lovers or parents, and children blaming each other for neglect, or praising each other for timely and satisfying letters.
Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.
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