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.