University of Rochester Library Bulletin: What Shall We Do With Grandfather's Letters?

Volume II   · June 1947  ·  Number 3
What Shall We Do With Grandfather's Letters?

In 1926 three expressmen staggered into my apartment in New York carrying a large wooden box that was so heavy it sorely taxed the strength of even those husky stalwarts. This box was followed by two more like it, by five heavy trunks, and six smaller boxes. In 1936 two expressmen carried away from my apartment (another apartment, as I had moved several times in the interim) about a dozen neat wooden boxes each the size of an ordinary vertical file drawer.

In the ten years which had intervened between these events I had experienced almost all the emotions in the catalog in relation to the contents of those boxes. Elsewhere I have written about the dramatic circumstances under which I learned that a very large collection of my grandfather's papers had been found in storage in an upstate, country house. Grandfather's story has been told by me and by others. (He was Henry A. Ward, 1834‑1906, the naturalist and museum builder. ‑Ed.). This is not the story of grandfather. It is the story of how I dealt with his papers and what I did with them and why. It is a story that is as easily applicable to your grandfather's or your uncle's or your father's or mother's papers. It is a story that carries with it personal memories that are deep and unforgotten, that strikes deep at the deli­cate balance between personal privacy and the obligation of the citizens of democracy to preserve the records of our people and their achieve­ments. We are fortunate to be among those "who know the past too well to fear the future," a phrase which I have inscribed above the history shelves in my library and which I owe to John Rothwell Slater, the genial litterateur of the University of Rochester.

The boxes which I shipped away from home ten years ago had in them the whole story of a man, his life, his loves, his hopes and dis­appointments, even his bankruptcies. They range from childish scrawls written in 1846, to the ceremonious correspondence of diplomacy. There are diaries, legal documents, intimate letters from relatives and friends, some love letters, records of Wards who achieved, of Wards who failed, of one who went to Sing Sing and wrote pathetic messages from the grim cell blocks of the 1880's, records of everyday life, of pleasant journeys and inspiring friendships, of scandals, and even of a fist fight in Cyrus McCormick's office.

Grandfather was not famous; he is virtually forgotten now except by people with a special interest in his work. He did "get around" and he led an interesting life. In this respect he has thousands of highly literate counterparts among the men and women of his time and of the generations which have followed. Once in a long while a specialist wants to see grandfather's papers, but fifty or a hundred years from now, for every naturalist who consults his papers, there will be a dozen social historians who will be interested, not in his museum build­ing, but in his times - in the daily life and thoughts and problems of Americans and the homely details of how they lived in the nineteenth century.

We have long ago passed beyond our preoccupation with military, and political history. As becomes the great bulwark of democracy, our history is becoming far more democratic; our historians tell us of the past not only in terms of great names and great events, but in terms of the daily life and the daily problems which you or I would have experienced if we had lived in 1634, in 1734, or in 1834.

Our history is no longer an exclusively "Anglo‑Saxon" phenomenon. We are delving into the great adventure faced by all of the groups that have sought a haven in America, all of the races and nationalities that make America now. Not long ago I spent a week end in the home of the eighty‑year‑old great‑grandmother of a Jewish family with whom I have long been acquainted. With four generations of the family at an expansive supper table I persuaded her to tell me, in her own way, of her adventurous eight‑months' journey from western Russia to America, of her early life in New York and Albany, of her influence in her home community which extended far beyond interests confined just to her own people. Not long ago she died, and men and women of all races mourned her passing. In the notes which I made that evening I have a record that will be cherished not only by her family, but also by many others, because it tells a story for all of us about a woman who was not famous, but was one of those who built the life we live in.

Our key to the life of the past is in written and graphic records, not sober formal documents, but the everyday letters and memoranda and diaries of the people who made that life. How many of us have ever had any real understanding of the life of just a generation or two before our own, and with that understanding some clearer concept of the forces which have wrought the changes that have taken place?

During much of grandfather's life neither the typewriter nor the telephone were in daily use. Letters were handwritten and handwriting was far more important, as an individual artistic achievement, than it is today. Correspondence was a slower, more laborious process than it is today, but it was a more personal affair, since much business corre­spondence was written without the help of a secretary. There was time to write, not because events were any the less urgent, but because it just took longer to get the writing done. There was time to think and to make decisions, time free from the urgent whiplash of the tele­phone demanding answers. Grandfather could deliberate over a note sent by hand and answered by a messenger to a somewhat greater extent than if he had been using the telephone. On the other hand there were several emergencies in his home during a long lifetime which might well have taken a different course if there had been a telephone available. Grandfather traveled a great deal, yet in his sixty years of roving I suppose that only a few times did he ever travel more than fifty miles an hour, and he certainly never faced the personal experience of himself driving a machine that would go sixty or seventy miles an hour.

All of these things are interesting to know; sometimes they are important, especially to the historian, the historical novelist, historical research specialists for the stage and screen, and students of the evolu­tion of our social, matrimonial, medical, and environmental history. A change in fashion may appear to be a superficial thing, yet it may mean bankruptcy and unemployment to some manufacturers and their employees. The change from kerosene to gas lighting opened new opportunities for many, spelt ruin for some; the change from gas lighting to electric lighting made the gas fitter a relic of the past, the electrician the man of the future.

Many of the important changes in our lives did not receive much attention from the formal historian and as a result, if we want to know from whence we have come and how we have trod that path, we must rewrite our history, and we are rewriting our history. The source material for this great broadening, of our knowledge of ourselves is composed of the essentially personal records of our forebears ‑ the records of their personal and business lives.

Hence the importance of family papers can hardly be overestimated. It matters not whether the family or its members were famous. Fame is no longer the only ticket to admission to our historical, records. It matters only that they lived and observed and thought and felt and wrote in their letters and their diaries what they did.

Grandfather's papers are now in a vault in the Local History Room of the University of Rochester Library. They are in four large file cabinets. The letters are filed by years and they are cross‑indexed according to his correspondents. The young lady who has arranged his papers can tell you, or can determine without too much difficulty, just how much you could expect to find in the papers regarding various people and subjects, various events and customs, problems, and ideas of his times. The papers tell his life story, but they also tell much about the times he lived in, much more than formal histories or newspaper files.

Anyone who has a reason, ranging from intelligent curiosity to serious‑minded, historical research, can have access to grandfather's papers. They are now the property of the University of Rochester, made so by the terms of a letter which I wrote when they were sent there.

Contrast the present security and accessibility of grandfather's papers with four other lots of family papers of which I have known in recent years. In a house not far from my New York home there were shelves and shelves of file boxes, the records of the long life of an educator who "made headlines" a few times in his lifetime, who engaged in some notable developments in the field of public education. His house had to be vacated. A member of the family, considering the transfer of the papers to a university library opened one of the files and found some personal letters from one of his children. She decided that the papers were "too personal" for others to see and almost a ton of files was burned!

Down the street from my New York apartment is a house where the late Jimmy Walker, the colorful former Mayor of New York, had often visited and where his aunts had lived. The house was sold and renovated some time ago. One moonlit summer evening I found on the sidewalk a fat file folder. It was some of Jimmy Walker's early ­records of his political career and his law practice. Enthralled I sat on the curbstone in the light of a street lamp and read an amazingly interesting series of letters. I looked for more. They had been in the house and had been destroyed, I know not why but I presume because they were "too personal," or were just "old papers."

In an upstate New York barn there were several trunks crammed with the papers of one of the early pioneers of the Canadian North­west, a man destined for knighthood after a life of distinguished service to his king and country. On his journey through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard to take ship for England this man turned aside to see something of the upstate country, and he liked it so well he made it his home. His descendants, respected members of the community, carefully saved his papers, but they were in a barn and the barn burned!

In an attic in Connecticut are the papers of a well‑known American inventor. With them is the manuscript of his biography written by four successive writers, myself among them. It is difficult to explain why these papers are not deposited with some foundation or university, why the biography has not been issued. There are matters of interpre­tation which have to be clarified, matters of detail in which the bio­grapher is guided by historical impartiality, but which might not have been entirely acceptable to the subject of the biography (a retrospective judgment by some of the heirs).

There was in another town in Connecticut a fine old gentleman who knew all of the details of an almost classic love affair, an affair which had a life‑long influence on my own grandfather's life. I was about to get this story from him when his wife intervened: "We will not discuss that woman!" she said, and that was that.

In these episodes we find the cause of many of the gray hairs of historians, biographers, archivists, sociologists, and less specialized students of our progress as a people. Let me attempt to classify them:

An assumption that family papers are "too personal." Life is built of human relationships and human relationships are not always mild and har­monious, but what matter if they are not? The historian is not concerned with gossip or scandal, but in the records of gossip or scandal he may trace a picture of personalities or situations which will assist him greatly in evaluating people and events. No well‑trained historian will use petty, gossipy material in direct quotation, being bound also by the larger scope of the historical view, by the dictates of scholarly good taste, and by the laws of libel. But the historian is something like the lawyer or the physician ‑ he must be trusted with all of the facts avail­able, and the trained librarian, archivist, or historian should be trusted to make the decisions as to which papers should be kept and which should be destroyed.

My own father was a man of high scientific achievement which was never fully recognized or understood during his lifetime, and he was a man of many eccentricities. Some of his letters, with comments on his contemporaries, literally threaten to scorch the paper on which they are written. Yet his papers record much of historical significance relating to the scientific life of his times. We have not burned father's papers. We have stored them in a university vault until the passage of time and the objective judgment of the professional archivist will make it possible to winnow out the worth‑while material. In this case a "cooling off period" under conditions of secure storage seems wise.

The desire to keep possession of family papers. If there is secure, moisture-proof, fire‑proof storage which permits access for classification and study, no one will quarrel with family possession of records, but in so many cases family records are stored under hazardous, inaccessible conditions and no provision is made for their future. Speaking from personal experience I find greater satisfaction in being able to see and participate in the classification and the interpretation of grandfather's papers than merely to have kept them in storage with a provision that after my demise they would be deposited in some proper historical archive. It is best to make a complex arrangement of this type when one is here to deal with it instead of leaving it to executors, particu­larly when the executor may not be dealing with an estate large enough to reimburse him properly for time and trouble in depositing such a collection.

Retrospective judgments. The conclusion that "father would not have liked that" is in the same category as the remark of the estimable lady "we will not talk about that woman." Both of these viewpoints are forms of retrospective inhibiting of impartial historical study which are closely linked with personal standards of behavior, with personal views of what lies beyond the grave, and with personal interpretations of another's wishes. I cannot be convinced that any of our forebears, even though in some realm where there is knowledge of what passes on earth, could be too much concerned over the disclosure of their whole life, in the fullness and vitality of its complete extent, to a historian who is susceptible to the same well‑balanced judgments as the professional advisers who were admitted to confidence during his or her lifetime.

It should be emphasized again and again that deposit of family papers in a historical archive does not mean unrestricted disclosure to the irresponsible or lack of control over publication or interpretation. If, as many people I talk with believe, the fullness of time brings historical perspective and a revival of faith in His precepts, can one assume that those who have passed are not aware of this?

As a final comment on "what to do with grandfather's papers" my wife has reminded me of one important point which she has put in succinct if inelegant terminology: "family papers are interesting, but they are a damned nuisance to have around." This is heartfelt testi­mony indeed from one who, with remarkable forbearance, had to share a small city apartment with "grandfather." "Grandfather" in his steel boxes was everywhere, under beds, in closets, in sorely needed cupboards. In this era of housing problems, of small apartments and small houses, of the transfer of professional workers from city to city with little time for preparation, the well‑conducted historical archive is the welcome answer to many a housewife's prayer.

And so, from one who has "been through it" and from one who essays from time to time to play a very minor role in rewriting our history in more human and more democratic vein, when you are trying to decide what to do with family papers, get in touch with your uni­versity library, your historical society, your public library, instead of heading for the incinerator. If, in the archives of that institution, some historian learns that your grandfather went through bankruptcy, he will not be too much interested in that, but he will be interested in how the people of that period met the economic hazards of their particular depressions and inflations, and only grandfather's letters, uncensored and complete, can tell us that and many other things we need "to know the past too well to fear the future."