This morning I came across a hand-written, nearly illegible letter from my great-uncle Carleton. In his cramped, wobbly hand (he was 92 at the time), he wrote about his grandmother’s wedding. He remembered her stories about this event, which took place on the family’s front porch in Randolph, VT, in 1861. Uncle Carleton recited the guest list. He also told me about his grandfather, who mustered out with the First Vermont Division soon after the wedding, broke his kneecap, and ended up carrying the wounded on stretchers for the rest of the war. Carleton’s letter, written in 1983, connected me to an event from 125 years earlier. His personality bristles on the page and brings back his querulous voice.
As someone who has spent many hours reading old letters, diaries, and journals, I waxed nostalgic–briefly–about the demise of hand-written archival material. I thought about the letters of Susan LaFlesche, the first American Indian woman doctor. Her sloping handwriting described the trials of her medical training; her pride at standing firm during surgery while a male student fainted. I remembered a diary I read at our local historical society, written by a 12 year old Vermont farm boy, whose syntax and vocabulary helped me find the voice of an 18th century narrator. What would be lost if people no longer put pen to paper?
And then, a friend mentioned that she has never deleted over 10,000 received e-mails. I thought about Wiki-leaks, releasing a tsunami of e-mails about our two wars; about kids who send thousands of text messages per month; about voice messages piled up on my own cell phone–and my heart quailed. Is this a historian’s dream, or nightmare? Will we go crazy, sorting through an avalanche of e-mail posts, texts, phone conversations–and yes, blogs like this one–in search of the telling fact or detail? Is this the true meaning of “too much information?”
On the other hand, there are advantages to this brave new world. My current novel takes place in 2004 (already ancient history to some readers). I was thrilled when my friend Jack Burrage sent me to a website with the complete record of every Red Sox game from that fabulous year.http://bit.ly/9CfiLW In one quick e-mail, he saved me hours of digging. So maybe this isn’t an either/or situation–but it does leave me muddled.