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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Human-Readable Media


Owner and writer of the little book


I have written before of this little book, purchased at an estate sale, but why did I wake in the dark this morning thinking about it? Whatever the stimulus, I was motivated to pull it from the shelf once again and carefully, slowly turn its pages.

Opened from one end, it is a book of accounts, interesting for its own sake. Here is an entry for receipt of $100 for teaching four months in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, in 1853; Received of James, $42; Borrowed of William, $10; Received of Directors of Gretna Academy for services [teaching] during the month of March, $45.90. Such were items of the young man’s income.

His expenses, naturally, were more varied. In November 1853 his fare to Dunkirk was $5.30, dinner at Dunkirk 25 cents. Another $8.55 took him to Cincinnati, where he purchased “refreshments” for 20 cents and a volume of Pope’s essays and a Harper’s magazine for 50 cents. For a dollar he went to the theatre, for 50 cents bought a penknife. Clothes were not cheap -- $14 for a coat and $6 for a pair of pants – but while shoes might set him back five dollars, he had (presumably) another pair mended for only seventy-five cents.

A page of his accounts

Handwritten personal accounts from 1853. When I first got it home, I thought that was all the book contained, and yet I was well satisfied with the couple dollars paid for it, interested to see a young man recording that he had purchased [Charles] Lamb’s Works and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers for $1.75 over a century and a half ago. Many entries were in soft pencil, worn by the years. Others, easier to read, had been written in ink, but it is not still a book to be read hurriedly, and so it was quite a little while before I discovered more to it than lists of income and outgo.

Following the handful of pages of itemized columns comes something quite different, pages of closely written lines beginning,
You may wonder that I do not delight to recall the pleasant scenes of the past any more, the boyish reveries at twilight, lovely day-dream fragments of poetry that was never written but in my heart.
Was this the draft of a letter or an essay or only the private outpourings of a young man’s heart? He writes that while the romantic coloring of boyhood is no longer with him, he does not despair of its return someday and meantime takes a more sober enjoyment in work.

A page written in pencil following the two previous, in ink, that began with the quoted line above is titled “Life – Its Enjoyments” and starts off with a salutation, “Ladies and Gentlemen.” So, perhaps a public lecture? The writer was clearly working through his theme as he wrote. Certain words and lines are crossed out, showing that he revised his language as he went along.

A century and a half ago, I remind myself, he sat with this book before him and applied his thoughts to the pages now before me. Did he write by candle or kerosene lamp? I cannot see the young man, but I can look into his mind and his life, thanks to his written words. How much did he pay for the little blank book? How much for a bottle of ink? For pencils? Surely he never imagined a woman in northern Michigan in the 21st century reading what he had written!

Note that this book is not one of hundreds printed. It is unique, a “one-off,” as people say in our times. What were the odds against its coming into my hands at all?

Does anyone reading this post remember what I wrote of the little book when it first came to me? If so, you may recall that it served the young man as a diary when opened from the other end (follow the link above to read more of the life recorded in the journal), and there, like so many other writers of journals, he begins in a serious vein:
Tuesday evening. August 29. 1854. 
This is a lovely evening, and I must, therefore say something about it in my journal. I have been taking one of my old walks up in the clover-lot. There was a time when I walked up there every evening, and watched the sunset, and the sky grow dark, as the shadows of twilight gathered around, and the stars come forth, and all o’ that. And every time my enjoyment was seemingly new. It was such as I seldom feel now.
Does this journal entry echo the prepared talk at the other end of the book? It seems obvious that the talk issued from the same feelings and around the same time, although it’s difficult to guess which was written first.

What brought on the writer’s gentle melancholy? A pencil note made later under the date notes that he was 21 years old in 1854.

First page of handwritten journal


Soon, on January 5 [1855], he writes, with joyous little feeling for the day, “Birthdays are said to be mile stones on the pathway of life.” He goes on to say that he had been urged to go out to a “donation party” that evening, “but I had no mind to.” During this time of his early teaching career, he is “boarding” in two different places. “I dislike this moving about....” Away from home, living with strangers, working hard, wearing out his eyes. But when the superintendent comes to his school, everything goes well.
Sunday -- March 18, 1855 
I didn’t calculate to write any in my journal, but as I sat here that peculiar feeling came over me which always makes me look for a pen or a friend. I am at Rev. Mr. Smith’s. Elizabeth has just gone up stairs. She has been reading to me as my eye is rather bad. Cassy has gone to meeting with her father. It is all quite still....
Imagine the minister’s daughters, kind Elizabeth, exuberant Cassy, and the emptiness of the parlor when they are gone. No friend near, the young man picks up his pencil. (Despite what he wrote, he seems to have had no pen nearby.) His journal must be his confidante.

It is impossible to imagine a 22-year-old in America today in a similar situation. Today, with cell phone always in hand, friends are always only a click away. The entire world is only a click away! Can a young person today even begin to imagine the nineteenth-century journal writer’s solitude? And here’s another question: Can he or she read a single word of the faded cursive handwriting? No batteries or software are needed to make the writing visible, but the words on the page must still be read, and we are told that as young people no longer to write cursive, they have also lost the ability to read it.

But maybe our generation is too pessimistic when we imagine handwritten documents becoming inaccessible even where preserved. Maybe cursive handwriting, like cuneiform, will be translated anew by some future generation, old thoughts discovered, dead voices brought back to life.

Imagine such a future, when phone text messages and e-mails have evaporated and blogs vanished into the ether. Will our great-grandchildren take up diaries written before the Civil War as a hieroglyphic challenge? Will they feel the excitement of discovering an ancient and forgotten world?

What of today’s world, though? Our thoughts and musings and memories? Will all that be nothing but a gap in the historical record? An era of unrecorded history?

Letters tucked in between diary pages


1 comment:

Gerry said...

I'm resigned to disappearing entirely, pixel by pixel, my paper mulch pile eaten by mice. And yet I keep at it. I have no idea why.

I like the little book. No wonder you dreamed about it.