Follow by Email

Monday, February 29, 2016

What a Difference a Date Makes

And here's the rest of the story:

Shortly after posting my evaluations of the last two diary sources, I made a small, but amazingly significant, discovery. I was leafing through the handwritten copy of Laura Towne’s diary, looking for a particular comment, when a date discrepancy caught my eye. One entry was dated “July 19th 1862.” The next one was “July 20th 1901” Then came “July 21st 1901” and then “July 22d 1862”.
I recognize an obvious explanation here. The person making the copy simply wrote down the current year instead of 1862. I’ve made the same mistake myself. When you are writing dates, it is all too easy to write down the current year instead of the appropriate one. History students do it on exams all the time, and their professors get a chuckle out of reading that Attila the Hun died in 1998. We’ve all misdated checks, particularly at the beginning of a new year. I’ve seen a Jeopardy contestant or two make the same mistake—one that cost them hundreds of dollars.
Now a history student may simply not know the right answer. And a Jeopardy contestant may be guessing. But this is not the same sort of wrong answer. When the wrong date slips out for something you know well, it almost always is a date that has some other significance. In this case, I think it is pretty conclusive evidence that the diary was being copied in 1901. That makes this version the earliest copy of the four, the only one of the four known to the two people who were most involved with it—Laura and Ellen.
But 1901! That’s the year that Laura died—on February 20th, if I remember correctly. And that makes it even more important. Here’s what I think happened. When the twentieth century dawned, Laura Towne was 75 years old. She was undoubtedly already ill, and, because of her extensive medical training, I am equally sure that she knew she was suffering from a potentially fatal illness. She would have begun putting her affairs in order, and one of the things she wanted to do was make a copy of the diary for her dear friend, Ellen Murray, to keep.
She shortened some of the entries and omitted others. She corrected her intemperate judgments as she went along. She was, in fact, composing her own obituary—writing out the story of her life as she wanted it to be known. And she may not have been able to finish the task. The handwritten copy ends on May 28, 1864. The original diary could have continued much longer.
Does this simple mistaken date prove that Laura herself wrote the copy? No, probably not. Ellen could have done it in the months after Laura died. But it increases the probability that the handwriting is, indeed, Laura’s. Once again, I am brought back to Paul Hyams’ bit of advice: “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.”
A good friend suggested to me that this whole problem might make a good presentation at a history conference. It would not. Historians do not accept what they cannot prove. But a novelist? A novelist must listen to all those little voices that suggest “what might have been.” To my own surprise, I was now hearing the voice of Laura Towne in a way I had not heard her in all the months I had been reading about her. This handwritten copy of her diary now sits on my desk as a personal message, and her words guide and color the story I am trying to tell.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Pretty Is As Pretty Does

The story continues . . .

Two editions of the Towne diary remain. The printed edition is easy to dismiss. The Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne, edited by Rupert Sargent Holland, was published in 1912. Holland used two sources, a typescript of the diary, which was prepared by Horace Jenks, and a similar typescript of Laura’s correspondence, in whose preparation Helen Jenks had a hand. A careful comparison of print edition and the Jenks typescript reveals that Holland, or someone guiding his efforts, made a great many additional cuts in the original material.
Let’s start with Holland himself. I have been unable to verify a direct connection between the Jenks family and Holland, except that Horace and Rupert were the same age, both born in 1878, and attended Harvard at the same time, where a friendship between them is at least plausible, if not likely. Holland is best known in the library world as the author of “historic” books such as Historic Boyhoods, Historic Girlhoods, Historic Ships, Historic Inventions, Historic Railroads, Historic Heroes of Chivalry. Are you sensing a pattern here? Laura’s writings may have barely escaped being titled Historic Letters and Diaries. The Holland edition falls into the early 20th-century genre of “edifying literature.” Laura is always healthy, always optimistic, always content—never a living mass of contradictions and human failings. I’m sure the resulting volume pleased Laura’s family, but as a historical source it is nearly worthless.
By the process of elimination, I was down to a single source—a curious handwritten copy of the diary housed apart from the main collection of Penn Center documents. I found its background reassuring. It is assumed to be a copy of the diary made by Laura herself and given to her long-time companion, Ellen Murray. In 1908, this hand-written copy passed to Ellen’s niece, who was the daughter of Ellen’s sister, Harriet Murray, and T. Edwin Ruggles, who was also a member of the original Gideonite band of missionaries. Eventually the copy passed to Ellen’s great-niece, Helen Shaw.
Helen Shaw loaned the hand-written diary to Edith M. Dabbs, who was helping to catalog and archive the papers at the Penn Center during the 1960s. Who was Edith Dabbs? She was the wife of a Penn Center Trustee who served from 1960 to 1970. After his death, Mrs. Dabbs stayed on as the archivist of the Penn Center. She was an English teacher, the wife of a USC English professor, and a trained journalist. She wrote several books, perhaps the most important of which is Sea Island Diary: A History of St. Helena Island, published in 1983. Her primary source material? This hand-written copy.
Mrs. Dabbs allowed the University of North Carolina Library to Xerox the manuscript before she returned it to Mrs. Shaw. Mrs. Dabbs kept a copy of the Xeroxed manuscript among her papers.  On its covering sheet, she made a note: “Ellen Murray wrote the first page of this manuscript, from which the Xerox was made, from the original manuscript of the diary kept by Miss Towne. After page 1, the entire manuscript is in the hand of Miss Towne who kept it originally in two small composition books.” This copy now resides in the Edith M. Dabbs Collection at the University of South Carolina’s Carolingiana Library. The woman who catalogued that collection will not commit to a statement that the handwriting actually belongs to Laura Towne, because she has no other corroborating evidence of Laura’s hand. The claim, however, seems reasonable to me, since it comes down through the family of Ellen Murray.
One final question remains. Is this copy different from the others? Yes, it is substantially different. When it is side-by-side with the print edition, there are six or seven differences per page. Most of the changes, however, are editorial ones. It is easy to believe that Laura made this copy for her dearest friend, sometimes leaving out small things that Ellen would already know, but more often polishing the language. And here’s the telling difference: the disparaging comments about the freedmen from the other copies have been modified or eliminated. It is exactly the sort of editing I can imagine myself doing on something I wrote thirty years ago. In my novelist’s imagination, I see Laura shaking her head at her own foolishness and saying, “Oh for Heaven’s sake! I can’t believe I ever said that!”
Is the result a truer vision of Laura? I think it is. She undoubtedly came to South Carolina with the same inherent prejudices and preconceptions that almost all the abolitionists shared. They had an idealized view of what the Negro race could become, but little knowledge of the realities of slavery until they met it face to face. As a result, they were horrified by much of what they saw. Laura’s intemperate reactions in her first weeks there come from that shocking reality. But unlike many of the original abolitionists, who simply gave up and went home, Laura stayed in South Carolina for forty years, working among the people she had come to love.

This handwritten version of her diary speaks to me as none of the other copies do. And I think it gives a clearer picture of the mature Laura than any other source I have found. Laura Towne is not the derogatory words she wrote in her first few days on St. Helena Island. She is, rather, the work she accomplished, the task to which she devoted her entire life. If she edited the diary to reflect the attitudes of a lifetime, that was her privilege. She deserves to be judged by what she did, not by what she said.

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.