“Down in the Valley,” American folk song
America has always been a nation of letter writers.
America has also been a nation of letter savers. Not just letters from famous folk. We also saved letters from Aunt Jessie or Uncle Frank or “Baby Sister” or Mama or Daddy. Many of these letters wind up in repositories around the country where they serve as valuable sources for everything from commentary on then-current events to accounts of health and weather and crops and whatever else the writer believed the receiver would find interesting.
“There is nothing new going on here,” they often begin, and then follow paragraphs and pages of the “nothing new going on.”
Historians love letters.
Over the generations my family – immediate and extended – wrote, received, and saved scores of letters, which they dutifully passed along to their children, who saved those and added theirs until the drawers that should have been holding clothes were crammed full of correspondence tied up with ribbon.
After my parents’ death, I inherited our family archives.
For the past year I have been sorting through, filing, reading, and remembering.
Letters from my Mother to the man who would be my Father, are full of snippets of small town life that she knew that he, being away training to fight Hitler, wanted to know all about – who was dating whom, who had been drafted, how she and her girl friends were coping with what was rapidly becoming a male-less society.
I knew these folks. My children never did. Perhaps I should draw up a “cast of characters” so that someone reading them years from now would know who “OB,” “Cat,” and “Quincy Jr.” were, on the off-chance they would care.
The oldest family letters date back to the 1830s, when my many-great grandfather, John Jackson, made the trek from the Orangeburg District of South Carolina into the wilds of what was then Coosa County, Alabama. He was following a wagon carrying Christiana Spiegner, the object of his affection. Following women into uncharted territory has been a character note of men in my family.
The most recent letters were written in the 1990s, but there are not many of them. There are almost none after that.
I continued this tradition of collecting correspondence. In my files are copies of letters dating back to the mid-50s, mostly notes from girls telling me that they “liked me as a friend.” One received my letter, corrected the spelling, and sent it back. The romance withered, just as she intended.
However, like the letters saved by my parents, my collected correspondence trailed off in the 1990s. Why?
Because of the telephone, but because of e-mail.
In the 1990s long distance rates became almost as cheap as postage, so the telephone became a more popular means of communication.
Most phone conversations are lost as soon as you hang up. Had my mother been a diarist who faithfully entered “Hardy called today” and recorded what I said, I would have only the vaguest notion of what passed between us.
Before e-mail I saved letters. I filed and boxed them by name and year, and from time to time I would pull some out, and recall old friends and former students.
After e-mail we continued to write each other, but no longer were there letters to file and save. The paper trail, dating back decades, had come to an end.
Oh the letters were saved, all right.
On my computer.
And where on my computer? Good question.
Some are in the “in-box,” some can be found under “saved,” some may have ended up in “trash,” because my less-than-nimble-fingers occasionally click the mouse when the little arrow is pointing where I did not intend it to point.
Then there are computer “crashes” which erase whole files, an event not unlike the house fire that destroyed all my great-grandfather’s personal papers, including the manuscript of the history of the regiment in which he served during the Civil War.
And sometimes, when we “upgrade,” our old computer goes into a recycle bin and with it all the letters we have written and received.
So it follows that when my children come into their inheritance, they will not be burdened with sorting out stacks of letters.
It also follows that libraries and archives that might have stored my letters for future historians, will not have to catalog the “Hardy Jackson Collection.”
I am told that computer “experts” can retrieve messages that have been deleted.
This ability has enabled investigators to pull out “lost” files and expose illegal, unscrupulous, even immoral activities by public figures, all the good stuff that historians thrive on.
But unless historians become computer “experts” themselves, they won’t get to use it.
I picked the right time to retire.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Down in the Valley,” American folk song