Back in the Saddle

Hudson and Joy Letters from October 1856

I'm back to work on this book, although it feels more like play. It's something I absolutely need to be doing, not only because of my interests and other factors, but because of my Inherent temperament. I said that after the new year I would begin to split my time between my online animal store and my writing. So today I began. 

Somewhere in this pile of letters, a portion of the folder for October 1856, is a letter from Jerome Hudson in Vermont to his brother Nathaniel in Iowa. It's partially transcribed, since I "transcribed the meat" out of many of the letters a number of years ago. But beyond the meat is a lot of interesting information and much of the joy in reading letters. Jerome is studying survey in Townshend and wants to tell his brother about the new surveying instrument purchase by the school. His skills as a surveyor will guarantee him work when he goes west, where land sales and trades are blooming, and people from the East are coming in record numbers to stake their claims.

I feel as though I have a dozen books in me right now, and this one is of primary importance to me to finish this year.

I Got Stuck

A xeroxed letter dated 1856 and some 
painted macaw pins on my work table

September 15, 2012

I didn't get writer's-block stuck, as in "I don't know what to write," but I have stopped writing for most of the past few weeks. I was proofreading the transcript from this 1856 letter (what you see on my work table here is a xerox of the letter), when several things happened: 

1) I don't enjoy the minute proofing as much as the writing, initial transcribing, and research. I learn from these things.

2) I started thinking about money and immediate expenses, and I began working on my online store again. I would like to get all of the pained animal pins put up well before Christmas, and there are hundreds left to do. You can see a few colorful macaws above. They are beautiful, fun to work with, and I am excited that people will have a chance to find them. (I suppose this does not mean I couldn't spend SOME time proofing, but it has indeed become a block; therefore, I will blog about it, dumping some of my innards, engaging in the creative process, and avoiding the proofing a few hours longer.)

3) I started working on other online potential-income things and also working on various blogs again.

4) My parathyroid illness is temporarily worse again. "Another story for another day."

5) And this may be the one excuse worth looking at. The letters I am avoiding working on are not especially germane to this book. The critic on my shoulder says it's a waste of time to labor over them. The believer/supporter on my other shoulder disagrees, but the critic at this moment is SO much louder. It has no need. There are many good reasons to "waste time" taking care over the "dead ox incident" described.

As part of the task I set for myself, I wanted to transcribe and make available to readers and researchers every letter and document in my collection, whether they all end up in the final published book or not. I also find the details of the lives I'm exposing extremely interesting to ME, and maybe others will enjoy them, too. It does sometimes become tedious to try to discern whether an "A" is capitalized or not, whether a dash is a period, or whether a new paragraph should be started when the writer ended a line short, but did not indent the next. These decisions sometimes drive me crazy, but oddly enough, they can help form insights into what the writer was thinking, whether something was important to them, or whether they were in a particular hurry. I also want to be accurate, because the transcript is all most readers after me will see.

Back to the letter at hand. The writer is incidental. He (they, for it is a letter enclosed within another letter) do not appear again in the story. But what they bring in their cameo appearance is a touch of the reality of daily life in 1850s Iowa and tells us what a lawyer of the day might be dealing with. A lawyer in Iowa writes to Nathaniel, who is also a lawyer, but in a different town in Iowa. The first lawyer encloses a letter from a man in Nathaniel's town who needed help. The man had borrowed a team of oxen from a friend in eastern Iowa to move his family and goods to Sioux City in western Iowa. He was supposed to have sold the oxen on arrival and sent his friend the payment. But he didn't. 

I don't know why photos taken by my phone won't orient 
correctly some of the time . . . sorry about that.

The settler used the oxen for awhile to work his new land, and then one of the oxen apparently got "dry pneumonia" and died. What good is an ox team with only one ox? The surviving ox was fat and salable for beef, but would the owner settle for proceeds from only one ox? 

In addition to the legal question, I am reminded of the importance of that animal that has all but vanished from most of our lives, and even from the scenes in my imagination. When I think of the 1800s, I think of transportation by horseback, carriage, stagecoach, and I think of horses. On a farm, I picture cows, pigs, and sheep. The ox does not come to mind. Thanks to an old letter that my inner critic said was a waste of time, I have broadened my mental landscape of life in 1850s Midwestern America and my understanding of what these times were like for my ancestors. As an animal lover, I also like to think the oxen will be remembered. It's probably time to proceed.

Cross Writing from 1856

N.C. Hudson to Helen R. Joy ~
August 15, 1856

Same letter as above

Cross writing was a popular way to save on postage and paper in the 1700s and 1800s. Fortunately for me, there are not a lot of cross-written letters in the Hudson and Joy collection I'm working on, and when the people do cross write, it's usually only a small portion of the letter. Some examples can get pretty extreme, though, as you can see from these letters that came up in a Google image search.

I've found cross writing to be easier to read than you might think, especially once you get used to someone's handwriting. In the case of Nathaniel's letter to Helen (above), I had to get out the old Agfa Lupe to be sure about his first line (after the date and "My Dearest Helen"). Not only does the writing cross, but it's extremely light. There is not usually much fading in these letters, but either his ink was thin, the paper was slick and the ink didn't adhere very well to the first page, or it really did fade.


Aha! It's the ink. At the end Nathaniel apologizes for "this miserable looking letter - I believe my ink is entirely spoiled."

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

The "Black Warrior"

The steamship Black Warrior.
(Copyright-free image)

Page 2 of Ben Howe's letter to Nathaniel.

One of the joys and challenges of working on this book of history is the unexpected information that comes up when I search topics related to the letters. In this case, the ship Ben took from New Orleans to New York turned out to be famous. He mentioned its name, Black Warrior, at the end of line 13. Ben took his trip in June of 1856. The Black Warrior was built in 1852. Had Ben taken the same trip in 1854, he might have been aboard on the day the Black Warrior nearly became the catalyst for war with Spain as it lay moored off of Havana, Cuba. Had he taken the trip in 1859, he might have been among the last passengers on the fateful ship when it grounded on Rockaway Bar near modern day JFK Airport. There are a number of web pages about the Black Warrior, and this one combines most of the historical information along with notes on the wreckage. If you scroll down the page you can even see eating utensils from the ship, giving us some idea of what Ben's place setting must have looked like.

It's fascinating to find this kind of stuff, and the challenge comes in sorting out how much to include in an already-very-long draft. But it's exactly this type of material that gives clues about how the people in the letters lived and what they thought about. Certainly both Nathaniel and Ben knew the history of the near-war sparked when the Black Warrior's captain had failed in February 1854 to declare to Spanish Customs that he was carrying a load of cotton from Alabama. He failed to declare because the law didn't require it, as the cotton was not intended for offloading in Havana. However, the new Governor of Cuba seized the ship and provoked an international incident. War was only averted because England, France, and Russia were about to become embroiled in Crimean War and did not want the added burden of backing Spain. The war was forestalled, and would eventually take place in 1898 as the Spanish-American War, the famous war in which Teddy Roosevelt commanded Rough Riders at San Juan Hill - a war with history-changing repercussions as far away as the Philippines.

There are any number of interesting points in Ben's letter. He had his own style that expressed itself in simple things such as the "double comma" look of his periods and the already-mostly-outdated use of "f" instead of some of the "s's" in his text. He writes "pafs" instead of "pass," for instance, and it took me a minute to figure out that "lef" was "less," because he didn't include the second "s" (or else it's barely there, see line 10).

Ben's exuberance comes through in passages such as, "Now Friend H. Tis not fair no t’isn’t by any means when I talk so freely to you & just to think you should keep such a matter of . . . grand importance for me who give you all my confidence entire. Oh, Ho Ho. Don’t get vexed don’t." This was Ben's response when he learned in Vermont that Nathaniel was contemplating marriage and had not mentioned it to his old friend.

I find myself curious when I read, " . . . we stopped at Havana for a while & I just got my pass ["pafs" in each case] and went ashore for awhile to see the sights at Havana. Well after getting my pass (just like any other nigger) I approached the officer, Pass in hand & was permitted to enter the old city of Havana. . . ." First, let me say, I actually shudder to use the "N word," even here, as I was brought up to find racial slurs abhorrent. (I don't mind swearing, that is a whole "nother" thing, but I cringe to hear racial slurs, much less perpetuate them - and that is the crux here.) But "first" again, I do not change the words used by the writers of the letters. These are their thoughts and the language of their times. In the publication of All Eight Went, a 1910 travelogue, I did change "Chinaman" to "Chinese man" for the sake of what I thought was propriety, and I've always regretted it. The flavor of the time and the character of the people left the sentence, and I had written a lie. Second, I don't believe that the word "nigger" was here intended as a racial slur by Ben against black people. Again, it was the language of the times, and it conveys a particular attitude and complex relationship to his environment that I can only begin to understand by keeping the word in its context. Until his early 20s Ben had lived in the North among abolitionists and those who, while not in favor of human bondage, had only tolerated slavery because it was constitutionally the law of the land. At twenty-something he had traveled south to teach school and had lived in slave-holding communities and perhaps in slave-holding households in Georgia and Louisiana by the the time he wrote this letter at the age of almost 27. His Northern roots had become tempered by sympathy for how the Southerners lived. He was also conscious that he was writing to a Northern friend, but one who had also spent time teaching in the South. While Nathaniel had not adopted the South as fully as Ben had, he had come to love his Southern family and understand their ways and reasons.

Returning to the line used by Ben, I conclude that while not showing contempt for blacks, he is taking into account their status as less than that of respected citizens and expressing his own sense of humiliation at needing to be approved and monitored in order to go ashore in Havana. I find this interesting, as Havana was not part of the United States, and we are so used to the formalities and even the invasive procedures at border crossings and domestic airports. In any case, Ben appears to have been miffed, or perhaps he was only making an observation. His inclusion of himself along with the black race ("any other nigger") erases boundary lines and plants both Ben and the "niggers" within the same human family, not a universal thought in his day, but also not entirely unique.

These are only a few of the intricacies found in such a letter, and just a hint of why I am enjoying this project so much. I look forward to the day it becomes a book to be shared with others. For some reason I was unequipped to bring it to a conclusion 30 years ago - no doubt because I had not found the right vision for it, and no doubt also because I lacked some necessary aspect of life experience or judgement. In any case, I feel grateful today that I can enjoy the journey, and for these insights into what life was like in Ben's world. I am grateful that he wrote to Nathaniel, that Nathaniel saved the letter, and that I was led to find it among a treasure trove of writings well over a century later.

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

With Love from Havana

Letter from Benjamin Howe to N.C. Hudson ~
August 16, 1856

My draft is now over 1,000 pages, and it's still lacking a title. I've read through it once from beginning to end. It was an eye-opener how well the parts flowed together. Even though I know so much of the content almost by heart, I found myself anxiously waiting to see what would come next. I thought the draft would be a lot spottier than it was, as I have so many more letters from some periods than from others. Fortunately the intervening events were so interesting (to me, anyway) that it seems to be working.

The more I read, the more there is to learn. I am loving this aspect and learning so much. I was surprised to see how many of the letters had been fully transcribed over the past 30 years, so there is less still to do on that score than I had anticipated when I picked up the project again. One letter that was only minimally transcribed until this week is this one from Ben (shown in the photo).

Ben's letter has been my "edit point" for several days, or more likely a whole week. It's taken more time than most letters for a number of reasons: it's six full-size pages long for one thing, and for another, I took a break due to pain from a badly tweaked back and a medical test. The test came out fine, but had me down for awhile also. Pain on pain, and no fun.

I'm now halfway through the final proofing stage of Ben's letter. His are always a joy to read, and this one includes interesting travel notes. He had been living in Ringgold, near Lake Bisteneau, Louisiana, a bit southeast of Shreveport and about halfway between New Orleans and Dallas. In 1856 he decided to take a trip home to Vermont for the first time in six years, and he wrote his old friend Nathaniel about it when he got back. (The envelope under the letter is addressed to Nathaniel in Sioux City.) The journey one way took 17 days. He took a steamship from New Orleans to New York, which was a regular route with a stop in Havana. 

Later or tomorrow some highlights from the letter.

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

Chapters and Notebooks

October 21, 2011

I've been writing some about the current state of the project on Sheryl Todd's Personal Blog. I'm also migrating the material from the current blog to its own web site.

This blog is sponsored by Tapir and Friends Animal Store.

To "Sic" or Not to "Sic," Ain't That the Question?

When writing these long early chapters, I used the word "sic" hundreds of times. "Sic" = "thus" = "this is the way they wrote it, folks, I'm only the messenger." But it does become a question, sometimes agonizing. In the last line, N.C. Hudson says he thinks the bridge is over a hundred miles wide. Of course, he doesn't mean that. Does he mean feet? Yards? To which direction is he referring? One could make an educated guess. But more importantly, I enjoy passing mistakes like this along to the reader. N.C. Hudson loved to travel. He loved the vastness of the open country. Perhaps his mind was in "vastness" mode rather than focused down onto small details. Maybe it was the feel of great size of the bridge that impressed him rather than an anatomically correct rendition of the dimensions.

When I transcribe, I use "[sic]" all the way through the material at every misspelling, every doubled word, every serious mistake in punctuation. I do that because I want to make an accurate typed (electronic) copy of the letter that can be more easily read than the handwriting and can be copied and edited for publication, but I don't want to lose any of the details of the written version. That's really not a problem, because the transcripts are for reference. I remember one of my cousins reading a transcribed letter and telling me, "There are too many 'sics' in it." For reading, this is true, so what does a writer do? I'm still working on that.

When I edited the journals my grandmother and her family wrote on a trip around the world in 1910 and 1911, I will never forget a change I made in favor of "political correctness," although I'm sure I had never heard that term at the time, I simply didn't want to be offensive toward a race of people. One of the journals described events as the family was preparing to boarding a ship to start the first ocean part of their voyage: "Exploring further, we ventured into Steerage, and there surprised two Chinamen still in bed, the Chinese crewmen not being allowed to go ashore in Seattle." I changed "Chinamen" to "Chinese men," and have regretted it since. It lacks the flavor of the time, and it withholds information about the words that were considered proper usage by my ancestors in those years. It doesn't sound authentic, and I didn't footnote it. The edited journals ended up as a book that I put together and my grandmother published, entitled All Eight Went. I do plan to put it online one of these days, as all of the printed copies are gone. That will be my chance to reverse that choice, anyway.

When a person transcribes letters without using "sic," nobody knows whether to attribute the mistake or variation to the letter-writer or transcriber, and that's why I would rather litter the page with "sics" at the outset and think about changing them later. A transcribed letter can be used as historical reference material, or it can become the basis for story. It's fascinating to me to be given the gift of these windows into the past. There was a time when "ain't" was used within the context of more proper grammar, although I don't know if it was used in fun or seriously. It may have been a fad, or maybe not, but I'd have to find those letters again and read them in the context of other years. (Well, hopefully I may have footnoted it!) Perhaps the grammarians were still in the process of deciding whether the word was proper or not. Another interesting side note is that the letters from the generation I'll be dealing with most sound positively modern next to the letters from the generation of their parents. How does this happen and why? Maybe we see it today, and maybe history will note the demarcation.

You can also tell a lot about the education level of a person from his or her letters. The person may be self-taught or well-schooled, and that in itself is of interest. Some of the writers with lower levels of formal education spelled certain words phonetically. It's interesting to "hear" them speak through their letters. They had a slight accent that I don't have. I learned that from their uncorrected writing. And there were conventions of the day that tell us more about the time than about the person.

Once you get to the stage of publication, some of the "sics" can be left out, as I know beyond a doubt that I have gone over it enough times that what you see is what was there. In other cases, maybe a writer wants to "clean up" the spellings and punctuation so the meaning can be understood. But it does change a reader's perception of how the individual might talk or how fast they might be trying to put words onto paper. All of these things I found to be of interest. This is why I felt so much life breathed into people whose lives had passed into history so long ago. The connection was real, personal, flawed, expressive. The trick is in figuring out how best to convey that to a reader without leaving the material in an awkward state.

So, these are some of the thoughts I have while embarking on this project. At first it's easy - keep it accurate. And then what?