Follow by Email

Thursday, February 25, 2016

No Guarantee of Accuracy

To continue the story:
I am convinced that the original diary no longer exists or has fallen between the cracks somewhere in a distant family member’s attic. Everyone I talked to seemed to “know” where it was—except that they were all wrong. Even the highest-level archivists admit that they cannot produce it. My own explanation? I think it disappeared for the same reason there are four versions of it. Laura’s friends and family members had varying memories of her—memories they did not want to challenge by allowing the public to read Laura’s most private thoughts. How do you keep her thoughts private? By hiding them away where no one will ever find them. And somebody did a really good job.
If I were still thinking like a historian, I might have been tempted to drop the whole thing right there. A historian must be sure of her sources. If the original is not available, the quest is over. But Dr. Paul Hyams reminded me that saying “There is no evidence” is a historian’s excuse, not a defense for a novelist. A novelist must bring imagination to the mix, hoping to come up with the hidden solution. Here’s my analysis, somewhat abetted by my own imagination.
Source number one is a microfilmed copy of a typescript of the diary, obviously produced on an electric typewriter and then carefully proofread and corrected with proofreader’s marks. I have no idea who typed this version, but I can date it to the 1960s or early 1970s, when electric typewriters were available to writers. That makes this version a hundred years younger than the original. And for that reason alone it is unlikely to be the closest match to the original. In a hundred years, too many other individuals have had a chance to make changes. Out it goes.
Source number two is also a typescript contained on the same roll of microfilm from the University of North Carolina’s Southern History Collection. This one differs in several ways. It was typed on an old manual typewriter, evidenced by the slightly misaligned letters, the standard evenly spaced font, and the tendency of some circular letters to be shaded because the typewriter keys have collected ink in their depressions. It is also identified as having been prepared from the original by Dr. Horace Jenks for the information of the Board of Trustees of the Penn School. The approximate date of preparation was 1908, just after the death of Laura’s long-time partner, Ellen Murray.
This one called for more investigation. First, who was Horace H. Jenks? He was the son of Helen Carnan Towne, who was the daughter of John Henry Towne, Laura Towne’s older brother—which makes him Laura’s great-nephew. His mother had inherited Laura’s estate in 1901. By the time of Ellen Murray’s death, Horace and his older brother Robert were taking over trusteeship duties at the Penn School from their mother. It is safe to assume that both Horace and Robert Jenks had seen Laura’s diary; when Horace authorized a typescript, he was working from the original.
But that’s not the end of the story, because this typescript has its own problems. It is incomplete. There are gaps in the dating, sometimes for several weeks and sometimes as much as three months. Furthermore, Horace was a Harvard-educated academic, who dutifully used the required ellipses whenever he omitted sections of the diary. The typescript is riddled with those little series of dots . . . . I’m grateful he at least marked them, but omissions simply raise more questions.
Did he leave out the boring parts? No, the omitted sections often occur at times when diaries and letters from other Gideonites reveal great turmoil—internal disagreements, disputes with the army, massive epidemics of killer diseases, or unusual danger from the threats of war. The result is a fairly happy picture of a woman who is doing the job she was sent to do, teaching slaves, treating minor ailments, and learning how to live in a surprisingly hospitable new land. It’s a lovely picture, but obviously inaccurate. That’s the trouble with ellipses.
One other characteristic of source number two bothered me. In it, Laura frequently expresses her displeasure with—and sometimes outright disgust for— the freedmen of South Carolina. She comments on how dirty they are, how uncivilized, how slow to learn, how uncooperative, how rude, how lacking in ordinary common sense, how superstitious, how cruel in their treatment of animals. Her attitude in the early sections of the diary does not in any way reflect her abolitionist belief that the Negro was as capable as any white person. In later sections, the complaints diminish, but favorable judgments are still hard to find. Why would Horace leave such derogatory comments in the typescript?
Maybe he was being honest. Maybe Laura Towne was a bigot. No, there’s a more plausible explanation. As early as 1900, Horace Jenks was leading a movement to change the nature of the Penn School. When Laura founded the school, she wanted it to offer a standard “English” education, so that the children of freedmen would grow up with the same educational advantages as their white neighbors. For almost forty years, she taught academic subjects—sometimes offering Latin, advanced algebra, philosophy, and ancient history. Horace Jenks and several other trustees favored turning the Penn School into a vocational center. They had begun dropping the academics and substituting classes in shoemaking, blacksmithing, basket weaving (really!), sewing, and agriculture. The change reflects the racial biases of the early 20th century, of course, but the edited transcript of Laura Towne’s diary gives the erroneous impression that Laura shared those views. Why did it not appear until 1908? I suspect it was because Ellen Murray was no longer around to oppose it.

This typescript has its value, but only for the sake of what it reveals about the editor, not about the original writer. I might use it for comparative fact checking, but it’s not a reliable guide to Laura.

1 comment: