"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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This past week, I received a reminder that April is National Script-Writing Month. Now, I have no intention of becoming involved with that project -- I am not tempted to try my hand at visual media. But the hype leading up to the month did bring back memories of my two attempts at the November exercise in speed-writing. So I thought I might re-cap those two writing adventures for newcomers here, and to remind myself of the struggles it takes to write a good book.
I'm now far enough
away from my first year of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to look
back on the experience without feeling stressed out. For those of you who are
unfamiliar with this exercise in self-torture, the idea is to write 50,000
words of a novel during the 30 days of November. You are supposed to charge
ahead, not re-reading or making corrections until it's all over. And nobody
seems to take into account the fact that there's a major holiday right there at
the end of the drill. Just plop the turkey in the oven and head back to the
I made it. Actually I
finished two days ahead of schedule, which should have made me feel very good
about myself. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit I was not brave enough
to go back and see what I wrote. Oh, I violated the rules left and right. They
are not designed for an old English teacher who cannot stand to see a spelling
error and let it pass. I also backed up to correct silly details like whether a
period belonged inside or outside a closing quotation mark. So I was pretty
confident that what I produced was in passable English. But did it make sense?
That was a whole different question.
My 50,000 words (50,626 to be exact)
were the finishing chapters of a much longer novel that had been stalled in the
middle. After letting it just sit there for six months, I signed up for NaNOWriMo, which forced me to
jump in and finish the darn thing. I’d been feeling pretty smug ever since I
completed the NaNoWriMo competition. The 50,000+ words I wrote there nicely
finished off my historical novel. I thought all I had left to do was polish it
up a bit. Hah!
For those of you who are new to this blog, I had been working on
the life story of a woman by the name of Nellie Chase, who had an amazing
experience as a Civil War nurse. Her story is compelling. She was a teenage
runaway, the "wife" of a musician who turned out to be "a
drunkard, a liar, a gambler, a forger, and a thief." She escaped from his
degrading lifestyle by signing up as a nurse with a Union regiment and
traveling with them for a year. During that year she faced the usual hardships,
compounded by a vengeful Presbyterian chaplain who thought she was a prostitute
and by challenges to her understanding of what it would mean to put an end to slavery.
For that year, I had
abundant information in the form of letters from the members of the regiment,
all of whom found her interesting enough to talk about at length. But I didn't
know who Nellie really was, or what happened to her after the war. That lack of
information led me to turn her story into a novel, rather than a biography, and
I had great fun creating a life for her before and after the war. NaNoWriMo was perfect for me. I had let my imagination fly and had created an exciting and plausible end to the story. So far so
Then one night I
received an e-mail from someone else who works on the same regiment. He had
found two small tidbits of information about Nellie. One letter suggested that
she was related to a prominent national figure. The other was an obituary that
listed the man she married after the war and told of her heroic death during
the Yellow Fever epidemic.
My "exciting and plaudible" ending was nowhere near as good as the real story. This was definitely a case
of the "truth being stranger than fiction."
It also meant that I had
to discard much of what I wrote in November, as well as segments throughout the
rest of the book. So back to the records I went, armed with a new set of names
and dates to be checked. It's a good thing I enjoy historical research. The
historian in me was excited; the writer, a bit discouraged.
On this St. Patrick's
Day, everyone wants to be thought of as at least part-Irish. It provides a wonderful excuse to go out
for a pint of Guinness or some corned beef and cabbage. Irish brogues and Irish
blessings seem to be on everyone's tongue. Green clothes have emerged from the
backs of closets, and a couple of comments on Facebook have reminded everyone
that if you don't wear green today, you can expect to be pinched by one of
those celebrants who may have imbibed a bit too heavily of green beer.
am reminded, however, how frequently various nationalities have suffered from
discrimination because they seemed strange or different, and the Irish were no
exception. One hundred and fifty
years ago, it was the Irish who were regarded by many Americans as somehow
inferior forms of humanity. That
form of prejudice leaps out at me as I
have been reading about the abolitionist attempts to prove that the
children of southern slaves were as capable as white children of getting an
Here's just one example,
taken from letter written by
Edward Philbrick, an Abolitionist missionary in South Carolina. He had been telling his wife why he
believed newly-freed slaves were fully capable of becoming useful
citizens. He says, "Think of
their having reorganized and gone deliberately to work here some weeks ago,
without a white man near them,
preparing hundreds of acres for the new crop. The Irish wouldn't have done as much in the same position."
Another of the missionaries commented that to one who was used to seeing the
stupidity of Irish faces, the slaves did not appear to "suggest a new idea
of low humanity."
seems to be an underlying assumption in the thinking of the Civil War period,
that some peoples are just naturally inferior to others. Others among the missionaries speak of the
Irish as one of the "degraded races" of people who had fallen from
their original state of natural equality to a lesser status. I've been shocked
to see that the same people who argue for the inherent ability of the former
slaves have no qualms about sneering at the inferiority of the Irish. As a
counterbalance, it is also easy to find the Bostonian Irish making the same
disparaging remarks about Negroes in general, perhaps because they saw them as
competition in the labor force.
not quite sure what to make of all of this. Are you surprised to learn that the
Irish were attacked in this way? More important, what does it say about our
ability — or inability — to judge the worth of people who are different from
I used to have a bit
of fun with my students while trying to make clear the unreliability of
so-called facts. "Imagine that it is fifty years in the future and you
have become famous for your (writing, art, political commentary, etc). Critics
have decided that the crucial moment that set you on the path to success came
during the weekend of Mardi Gras in 2011. Don't tell me what you did. Just picture it mentally. What was it? Where is the evidence? Now, what did you tell your best friend about the
weekend? And what did you tell
your parents? If future biographers look for evidence in your letters, diary,
journal, text messages, or Facebook photos, how accurate will their accounts
be?" After the blushes and giggles subsided, they got the message!
I'm currently dealing
with the same sort of problem. Much of the evidence for the life of Laura M.
Towne, the heroine of my next book, must come from her own writings. There are, however, several renderings
of those writings. The evidence
comes in layers, like an onion, and each time we peel away a layer, the
stronger becomes the scent of unreliability.
A published volume
offers the easiest way to access Laura's writings. Rupert Sargent Holland
edited the whole collection and published it in 1912. It has been reprinted and
is available for only a few dollars on Amazon. It reads well and it dates most
of the materials, although some confusion results from the editor's failure to
distinguish between journal entries and letters — an important distinction, as
my students would have recognized. As a result, contradictions crop up — a
statement that she has never felt better followed by a complaint of on-going
illness, for example. Gaps also exist. Did Laura really not write anything
about important events that
occurred during those gaps, or did her editor just not include what she wrote?
And who is Mr.
Holland? As her editor, he necessarily stands between the writer and her words.
An internet friend who has been working on this same material suspects that he
may be Laura's nephew. I have spent some time in the genealogical records, and
I've been unable to find any connection between Holland and the Towne
family. I do know that he was a
Harvard-educated lawyer, who also wrote edifying children's books, such as Historic Boyhoods and Historic Girlhoods. His writings all
emphasize those qualities a right-thinking child should emulate. But did he
actually censor Laura's writings in any way?
A collection of
materials concerning the Penn Center is housed at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. A typescript of Laura's journal and letters is
accessible on microfiche in the library. I've not yet seen it, but my
internet friend has. She tells me
that the typescript is marred by two problems. The more serious one involves passages in the typescript
that have been actually scratched out or marked over for exclusion. Since the
marked passages do not appear in the print version, it seems safe to assume
that the deletions were made at the time the book was being written. We can't know who made the choices,
however. Did a relative say to the
editor, "Don't include this bit"? Or did the editor decide the
excluded passage did not fit with the point he was trying to make? Either way,
the reader is hearing a voice other than Laura's.
It would be easiest to
blame the editor, but the original typescript has gaps, too, indicated by
ellipses (. . . .) showing where material has been deliberately left out. Who
created the typescript? We don't know, although there is a reference in the
introduction that seems to suggest that Laura may have been the aunt of the
transcriber. How did the typist choose what to leave out? Was (s)he influenced
by a need to protect her relative?
There's no way to tell
without being able to view the originals side by side with the typescript.
Laura's letters and journals still exist, but for the time being they remain
locked away. They have been housed
in the Archives at the Penn Center in South Carolina, but they are now in the
process of being catalogued and transferred to the University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill. They were pulled from circulation three years ago, and no one
seems to know when they will be once again accessible. I've been mourning their
temporary loss just when I need them, but I do recognize — as did my students —
that what Laura wrote may not have been what Laura felt or did.
Here's just one
example of how the layers of evidence can change the facts. Laura falls ill during her first year
in the Sea Islands, suffering from one of the many swamp fevers. She doesn't like to complain to those
around her but her medical training leads her to record all the nasty symptoms
in her journal. And because she doesn't want her family back home to worry
about her, she tells them that she was never healthier. The transcriber keeps
both the "I'm healthy" letter and the "I'm dying" journal
entry, but omits (. . . .) all the gory details of stomach fluxes and bowel
disorders — a typical Victorian attitude toward bodily functions. The book
editor spots the discrepancy and makes a choice. He wants his heroine to be a strong woman, so he omits any
mention of her illness. And the
reader comes away believing that Laura found the Sea Island climate a
particularly healthy and invigorating one.
What a nag I'm becoming I didn't start out to
be quite so negative. For the last
several posts, however, I have been warning against believing everything you
find as you research your topic or your own ancestors. Before I leave this thread,
I have to add another. We'll frame
it as a positive rule: "Always check the identity of your source."
The more information becomes instantly available over the internet, the more
careful you have to be. There's a
wealth of material out there; there is also a never-ending supply of quacks, polemicists,
and other angry people. Don't accept anything without finding some strong
We'll talk more about
using the internet in another post.
For now, I want to call attention to a particularly dangerous area
— personal letters or diaries that
have been transcribed, copied, or edited by someone else. The Italian language has an
important proverb: "Traduttore
traditore." It means, roughly, "a translator is a traitor."
Spanish provides a similar thought: "E
que traduce, traiciona," or "He who translates is guilty of a
betrayal." I kept the Italian version posted on the wall right above my
office computer while I was working on a translation of Latin letters, just to
remind myself that my English translation should reflect nothing but what the
author wrote, not what I thought he SHOULD have written.
Back when I was first
starting to do the research for A Scratch
with the Rebels
, I traveled to Penn State University to sift through a huge
collection of materials from the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. Seven large boxes
in the library basement held a conglomeration of original letters, newspaper
clippings, and typescript copies of other letters and diaries from members of
the regiment. Nothing much had
been done to preserve the materials, so that the original documents were often
faded and ripped. I was grateful
for the typescripts and spent much of my limited time reading those because
they took less time effort. The
collection as a whole was so valuable for what I was doing that I didn't worry
much about authenticity. It had,
after all, been collected by other descendants of the Roundheads, and it was
compiled by a college English professor who taught in the area from which the
regiment had been recruited.
Some time a bit later,
I was in the public library in New Castle, PA, this time looking for newspaper
articles that would reveal how much the people back home knew of the war and
how they felt about it. At one
point the librarian came back into the archives to chat. She casually mentioned an elderly
gentleman who had been there several years before. He had been looking for evidence that the regimental
commander had been having an affair with the regimental nurse. He had insisted
that the chaplain had been quite upset about the affair. Had I seen anything
about that, she asked. I dismissed it out of hand. After all, I had just finished reading a typescript of Rev.
Browne's letters, and I had not seen a single mention of such a thing. I dismissed it as utter nonsense. The
librarian was relieved; Col. Leasure was a New Castle native and a local
hero. She wanted nothing to sully
I, too, put it out of
my head for the time being, but I became a bit intrigued by the
possibility. Col. Leasure was a
dapper little fellow. Nurse Nellie
was young and very attractive. And
Rev. Browne was a straight-laced Calvinist. So when I went to the Military
History Institute in Carlyle to investigate their holdings, I was pleased to
learn that they had the original letters from Rev. Browne — some three hundred
of them, many more than I knew about.
I asked for the collection and put my husband to work on one stack while
I plowed through the other.
"Look for any mention of Nellie," I told him.
It didn't take long!
These original letters were full of innuendo, snarling attacks on Nellie's
character, and semi-veiled
accusations of improper relationships. It was clear that the good chaplain had
hated the nurse with a finely-honed passion and that he resented the fact that
the colonel seemed to favor her.
But why the difference?
When I talked to the archivist there, he shrugged and said, "Well,
Browne's granddaughter was the one who prepared the typescript before we received
And there was the
answer to at least part of the puzzle. The granddaughter had sanitized the
collection, systematically removing anything that might have reflected badly on
her beloved ancestor. It didn't
prove, of course, whether or not there had been an affair. It simply explained why I had not
reached the same conclusion as the elderly gentleman who believed what Browne
I remain grateful for
the discovery. It gave rise to my
next book, Beyond All Price,
that novel I had to deal with the question of the affair. I won't give away my
final conclusion, but I can tell you that I would have written a much different
book if I had not read the original letters for myself.