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.
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