Thursday, April 29, 2010

Guest in Progress: Rachel Hall on Historical Research through Letters

Here is the second half of Rachel Hall’s insightful exploration of why letters are such an effective source for the writer conducting historical research. (If you missed the first part, you can find it here.)

On Letters, Part II
By Rachel Hall

Another inviting aspect of the letter is the way the writer acknowledges the setting in which he or she writes—sometimes to describe it for one who hasn’t been there or to remind the recipient of a familiar place. In this convention of the letter, we get details of setting and mood and a built-in tension—the writer speaking through time and place to reach a particular other as in this one from an Air Force wife to her husband stationed in Korea:

January 20, 1952
Good afternoon,

It’s a bright cold beautiful day here in Iowa. How are you today, my sweet hubby? Jan is snoozing in her afternoon nap & Jay plays cowboy all day long and he hardly even takes a nap anymore. I think it’s high time you are coming home because Jan is beginning to call every man she sees in a magazine “Daddy.”

It will be wonderful to have you home again. You can come home at night to a nice comfy chair & Jay will bring you your slippers & pipe (?!)& I will bring you a nice tall glass of something cold in one of our new iced tea glasses.

The shadows are growing long on the lawn. It’s 4:30 & soon will be dark again & your day just beginning….

In their introduction to WOMEN’S LETTERS: AMERICA FROM THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR TO THE PRESENT, editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler note that letters talk: “ They are voices fixed on paper.…they tell stories; they tell secrets; they shout and scold, bitch and soothe, whisper and worry, console and advise, gossip and argue, compete and compare. And along the way, they—usually without meaning to—write history. “

In a letter written by the wife of a soldier stationed in the South Pacific in August 1945, this gem: “My, my. What a solemn owl I am tonight. Too much reading about atom smashing, I guess.” The letter is full of the letter writer’s thoughts about religion and politics, her mundane financial concerns. All interesting, but it’s the phrase “solemn owl” that gets the fiction writer. Here we hear a particular person or character.

One of my grandmother’s letters home to Palestine, written in 1941 concludes “Alinette, the happiest amongst us, grows like a mushroom.”Again, the phrasing is the gift of the letter. How interesting that the French say mushroom—that spongy moist growth,--while Americans say one grows like a weed, how revealing of time and place. This phrase, like a choice mushroom itself, could be harvested for my story.

Letters provide an individual voice that speaks to us from the past—and through this voice, we are reminded of the universality of human experience.

This was particularly striking to me as I read the letters collected in Raising a Baby the Government Way: Mother’s Letters to the Children’s Bureau 1915-1932. While the mothers’ concerns were different than my own worries as an expectant and new mother, I heard a tone—anxious, protective, obsessional--that I recognized as my own. Many of the letter writers were worried about marking their unborn babies by viewing a sickly infant or by not satisfying a craving for a particular food. This woman, writing the Bureau in 1925, says this:

…I’m worried sick. Its on my mind all the time. I wake up nights & think of things to eat….& what can you do when you long for watermelon or mush melon, or anything out of season? Can that mark or harm the baby in any way? Oh, please tell me what to do. I couldn’t tell this to anyone else but you, as I have no mother & no one else cares.

Our contemporary wish to protect and shelter our children is the same though it takes different forms—an insistence on organic baby food, for example, or green cotton diapers. These are our 21st century superstitions, fueled by the same deep love and fear.

There’s more to say about letters—the thrill of reading what wasn’t intended for you, for instance or how moving a letter can be. Indeed, this is research that can make you weep, as I discovered reading Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s final letter to their young sons. This is, I think, why stories that include letters—think of Alice Munro here—draw us in. We are trained by the form—even now—to respond, if not with an actual letter than with our hearts. ~Rachel Hall

About: Rachel Hall's work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone, and New Letters which awarded her their Cappon Prize in fiction. She is at work on a collection of linked stories entitled HEIRLOOMS, which follows a French Jewish family from the eve of WWII to America where they settle after the war. She teaches at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

You can listen to an audio version of her story that won the Lilith contest:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.