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A Man of Letters

By Daniel Hubbard | September 1, 2014

I’ve been translating Swedish letters lately and I’m struck by the personalities. Most letters from more than a century ago start with the discussion of health. It seems to be a general feature of letters in the western world at that time. There is the boilerplate proclamation of good health and the question about the readers health. It is easy enough to see why. In a world before Facebook updates, tweets, instant messaging, email and the telephone, a lot could happen between times when you contacted someone. Since it was also a time before vaccines, antibiotics, antiseptics and a long list of surgical procedures we now take for granted, it would be no surprise when someone’s health took a turn for the worse between letters. Just being told that the letter writer was alive was worthwhile news.

Nevertheless, every writer could still show their personality. Some follow their statements of good health with confessions of every ill and pain that they suffer through. They might then go one to detail all the sufferings of other family members, whose good health was just assured. It reminds me a bit of how we ask “How’s it going?” more to mean “Hi” than to actually ask a question that we expect will result in an honest and complete answer.

In another letter, there was a brief bit of boilerplate but not as much because a parent was writing to a child who was staying with grandparents. A bit of personality and ethical code comes through s bit later in the letter. The child was carefully instructed on how to erase the cancellation marks from the stamps on the envelope, then remove the stamps and reuse them to send a letter back.

Pure Ancestral Personality

One letter writer never put in any of the boilerplate. He threw in foreign words in several languages and used obscure nicknames for friends. His words are often abbreviated, strange and probably slang. I’ve come to think of him as a bit of  a 19th century hipster. Though his age was never mentioned, he gives the feel of being in his twenties. He was writing to a young woman and refers to himself as an old admirer. Every other sentence seems to be an inside joke. It has meaning and yet doesn’t and then ends with an exclamation point, as if we’ve reached another punchline. He seems to be flirting at the same time that he jokes that she will be marrying soon but since he wrote that in letters spanning several years, one wonders if this was nothing more than joking and flirting. He even claims to have seen her in a dream at another man’s side and dressed for a formal occasion and he asked if perhaps he should have dreamed about her dressed in white. He put silly drawings into his letters. He wrote of selling a cure for nervous exhaustion and rheumatism (yes, that is one medication for both conditions). He didn’t write about how well it worked, or anyone who had actually been helped. What he did write about was selling it and that seems to have been its most important property as a medication, the fact that people paid him for it. He ended that letter by writing that if she heard of any jobs suitable for an idiot, would she kindly let him know.

Those letters from this otherwise unknown man leave one guessing about the facts, other than perhaps the recipient’s address. His personality seems to be the one thing that these letters actually convey. As genealogists we tend to think about a the facts of a small set of life events, and for good reason. Nevertheless, once we know who people are, and have found the basic facts of their lives, there are other things to investigate. There are the little facts and stories we can reconstruct. If we are really lucky, we can even begin to understand personality. Sometimes we can guess at an ancestor’s personality by the things that they did. If we are really fortunate, we might be able to find bits of a personality recorded in an ancestor’s own writings. In this case, the letters are almost pure personality with little intelligible information. The letter writer’s personality is what comes through. What about the recipient’s personality? Well, she did save those letters after all.

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