Photo by Megan Bean, courtesy of Mississippi State University, February 2020
For Jennifer McGillan, letters are far more than a pleasant surprise in the mail. For close to two decades, they’ve also helped to advance her career as well as the fields it intersects, including library science, law, medicine, and history. Equipped with a Bachelor’s degree in English, an MLIS degree in Archives, and a JD degree, she — more than most — knows how uniquely valuable even a single piece of personal correspondence can be.
As Coordinator of Manuscripts at Mississippi State University, and in conjunction with five other institutions across the South, Jennifer is directing The Lantern Project, which is creating the state’s first institutionally supported digital database intended to give greater access to legal records identifying victims of slavery. Funded by a grant from the National Archives, the database will provide a fully text-searchable, indexed collection containing digital images of original documents – including plantation correspondence — that will allow scholars and genealogists to trace victims’ movements, and will empower descendants to uncover their ancestries and reconstruct family trees impacted by slavery.
Letters are a significant part of Jennifer’s personal life as well. After moving from New York City to Mississippi in 2015 when she was hired for her current position, Jennifer began The Mississippi Letter, a weekly summary of her observations and experiences for her family and friends back North. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early this year, Jennifer also launched her Pandemic Note Fairy project, sending messages she wrote on elaborately decorated stationery to people who needed a morale boost.
Jennifer generously shared some of her Saturday afternoon with Temporal Treasures offering insights by phone on numerous topics, including parasol-toting military strategists, the internal conflicts of lawmakers, a giant pink scrapbook, and archival silences.
TT: In your professional opinion, what value do letters provide for historical research that’s unique among primary sources?
JM: Letters add color, depth, and detail you wouldn’t find in other more formal types of records – they explicate the frantic paddling beneath the surface. For example, if you’re researching legislative history (the events that inspired a law to be proposed, written, and passed – or not), letters can offer insight into what motivated a person, family, or organization to propose or vote for or against a specific piece of legislation, which in many cases involved very personal factors.
In the case of Prohibition in the 1920s [banning the manufacture, transport, and sale of intoxicating liquor], you could find letters written to a friend by someone who wanted to “ban the demon drink” because of how alcohol caused suffering in their family or community – or, on the other side, letters about the ban written to a family member by someone expressing outrage and frustration that their civil liberties could be impinged on in this way.
And while voting records will tell you only which choices someone made, letters can reveal how deeply conflicted certain individuals may have felt in voting for or against the legislation, and why they ultimately chose to go in the direction they did. Letters from constituents received before or after the vote can also reveal the outside forces the person was responding to, or the general popular feeling on a topic. But these letters have to be read with a critical eye! Mississippi State has letters in the political collections where constituents thank their representatives for “working for all Mississippians” – but these legislators were staunch segregationists, and what the writers really mean is all white Mississippians.
Often what you discover in letters are details that don’t paint their writers in the most positive light. Sometimes what you find out reading people’s letters is that they were whiny, or cruel, or cheating on their partners, or had racist or sexist opinions. The most recent “Surprise!” reveal I can think of is Princeton finally opening Emily Hale’s love letters from T.S. Eliot, which he wrote to her while his wife was dying. When he found out she donated them to Princeton, he left an especially nasty letter of his own to his papers at Harvard, repudiating her and attempting to explain himself. (The Atlantic had a story on it.)
Sometimes letters show you a very different private vs. public persona. A businessman who was known for a very stern, hard-nosed demeanor can turn out to have been a big squashy teddy bear when you find a cache of mushy letters to his wife.
It’s also interesting to see how the same event can be spun by the same person when relayed to a far-flung relative vs. someone in the next town over, or which components of the event are emphasized when they’re shared with a spouse vs. parent vs. best friend vs. cousin.
TT: What’s an example of something we might never have known about a historical event or time period if it weren’t for the discovery of a particular letter (or set of letters)?
JM: As I mentioned before, letters are subject to the biases of their writers and tell only part of the story, so you have to put them in their historical context and combine them with other sources before drawing any conclusions.
Letters can make us more aware of our own prejudices as well. Just this week, I was reading a bunch of Civil War correspondence and was surprised to discover letters from a soldier’s mother and cousin who knew a lot about troop movements and which generals had been appointed to which commands. These women had very strong opinions about it – my, did they have feelings on that topic! – which I wouldn’t necessarily have expected from wealthy white women living on a plantation at that time. But really, why wouldn’t they write about that? They were very well informed by their sources and had the time to concern themselves with those matters. And of course today, there are plenty of military analysts and strategists who are women. But I went into it expecting updates on children, cows, and neighbors, what was made and served for dinner, and news of recent illnesses and deaths, which was more typical. So that was eye-opening for me.
Letters can also depict an issue or event from multiple perspectives, telling one story through different voices, ages, and stations. But even that approach can be limited, because in order to write a letter, one had to be educated, which was often a luxury, and further restricted along gender lines – boys were often more likely be taught to read and write than girls, as they were expected to go into the world of business, or have a trade, and the girls were not. There’s a sharp racial divide as well in the American South and other slave-holding locations, because most of the enslaved men and women were not taught to read and write, and in fact could be (and were) severely punished for trying to learn. One of the many cruelties of the slave trade was that when families were wrenched apart, if they were sold out of their community, they had no way to find each other afterwards because they could not write each other letters.
TT: In the age of blogs and shorter-form social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, sending a substantive weekly email letter to friends and family is relatively rare. What appeals to you about the format and frequency of The Mississippi Letter versus more widely used communications vehicles?
JM: I started The Mississippi Letter because, honestly, people in New York just didn’t know what to do with their faces when I told them I was moving to Mississippi. “Wait, what??” was a common reaction. (At least one person responded with, “On purpose?”) Of all the places I’ve ever moved to in my life – including places outside the United States – this is the one that was so incredibly foreign to nearly everyone I knew. The South is so incomprehensible to so many people that I might as well have been moving to Mars. In many ways, the South in general and Mississippi in particular can feel very isolated. This situation is at least partly of its own making; both the region and the state held onto segregation for a really long time and are still recovering. These letters are a way to help demystify the region somewhat, and to reassure people that the South hasn’t eaten me. Although we do things differently here, it’s no more or less American than other places in this country…we have our Walmarts and Dollar Generals like anywhere else!
My letter audience is broad – family, friends, former coworkers and supervisors, a few friends-of-friends who asked to be added out of interest – but the common denominator is that they don’t live in Mississippi. There are close to 100 people total on my mailing list. Writing each week helps me stay in touch with them…particularly my mom, who likes to go back and re-read these letters. It also means I don’t have to say the same thing to different people I talk with one at a time on the phone or in texts.
I decided on email rather than Facebook or a blog because I wanted, I guess, the illusion of privacy. Also because I kind of hate Facebook as a storytelling medium. It’s hard to search, things get lost, it just does not work for me. This kind of extended, diary-like writing is just not what I use Facebook for, nor would I want to.
The weekly frequency keeps me focused. If it were monthly, the length would probably be about the same, but would miss a lot of detail. It’s also a form of memoir for me that helps me recall what happened, say, two weeks ago.
If nobody had responded to the letters – by which I mean shown any interest – I probably would have stopped writing them, but people do seem to like them. I’ve been asked if I’ll make them into a book, to which I say: not right now. Maybe later. I think of it as an adventure that I’m recording as it happens. In general, I try to keep it light and funny, but also honest, because there’s a lot about living here that is not hilarious. The pandemic has been particularly hard, because I feel like it gets grimmer every week, and what used to be light entertainment periodically leavened by serious commentary is now a chronicle of a disaster. So I’ve started throwing in other stories from my travels, from happier times.
TT: Over the course of your career as an archivist so far, which piece of correspondence that has passed through your hands has been the most personally meaningful for you, and why?
JM: There are two collections of letters I’m currently transcribing that comprise a theme of “Writing Home.” These letters are from Northerners who moved to Mississippi from 1817 to about 1850 or so, or from statehood on forward – when Mississippi was the “Western frontier” of the country – describing their new lives to the friends and family they left behind. As a New York transplant myself, these were of particular interest to me. One set is from the Dr, Todd A. Herring Collection and the other is from the Thomas H. Smith Postal History Collection. Both describe various aspects of Southern life.
One letter that sticks out in my mind was written in 1842 by a woman on Evergreen Plantation who had moved there with her husband to her sister in Oneida County, NY. She complained that nobody loved her enough to visit her in Mississippi! Which is odd when you think about it, because it wasn’t as if her friends and family could just hop on a plane to see her! Mississippi would have been a very long trip at that point. Thankfully, I’m not in that situation. [Laughs]
Another letter was from a man in Louisville, MS writing to his brother in Manchester, NH in 1836. He remarked on the long growing season and warm weather year-round in his new home. You could see that he was rubbing that in a bit when he asked his brother, “Do you have snow in New Hampshire?” I mean come on, surely he knew that of course they had lots of it! He also inquired about the [factory] mill girls back in New England.
The contents of people’s gardens, the impact of the weather, and the long growing season were common themes running through these letters from Mississippi. To someone from the North, it would seem remarkable that anything could be grown through the winter. It makes sense that people focused so much on these topics since their own farms and gardens were their primary food sources back in those days. There were also lots of complaints about how terrible the roads were. Some things really haven’t changed! [Laughs]
Another thing that stood out for me, especially being in the midst of a pandemic as we are now, was how pervasive infectious diseases were at the time. There are lots of descriptions of epidemics in those letters that help inform the history of medicine in this country.
TT: What is one of the most memorable letters, cards, or notes you’ve ever received in the mail?
JM: I would say that more than any one letter, there were categories of letters that were especially significant.
For example, acceptance letters from educational institutions – my college, library school, and law school — literally changed my life.
There were also letters from friends that cheered me up during difficult times.
At Davidson [College], I had a penpal who was a college student from Wales. I distinctly remember opening the envelope of a letter he sent me and seeing a map of Glasgow fall out. At that moment, I knew for sure that I wanted to go overseas, and I ended up studying abroad. I also remember getting letters from a friend who had graduated and was teaching in Japan, which was always extra-exciting. There was something about getting mail from overseas that felt particularly special and exotic.
TT: What was the inspiration for your Pandemic Note Fairy project?
JM: I got the idea when I saw a Facebook post about a little girl who loved to send mail and dispatched it to everyone in beautifully decorated, astonishingly Baroque envelopes. One day she sent a letter to a postal worker, who was so touched by it that they shared it internally with others who also wanted to be her penpal. At one point I had bought lots of stamps, and I figured they needed some stationery for letters to go with them, especially at a time when people could use some positive distractions.
Since shifting over to email in 1993, my handwriting has gotten progressively sloppier over time. I have rheumatoid arthritis now, which has not helped at all, so on some level, it was also a matter of, “This may be the last piece of intelligible writing you get from me!” [Laughs]
Sometimes I think about how much pandemic letters – generally, not just mine – could confuse future archivists. People wrote and mailed letters for so long, then all of a sudden, starting in the mid-nineties, you see a dramatic decrease as everyone transitions to email, which will be reflected in people’s personal and family papers. Many people and families may have decades of only email – which if they can’t be preserved, will amount to nothing. And then suddenly in 2020: letters everywhere!
And there are some social phenomena unique to email that may never be properly preserved. All those messages people used to forward from random sources to their friends and family because of the humorous content (“forwards”) – precursors to today’s memes — have fallen out of favor because people eventually started getting too many and found them annoying, almost like junk mail. But they’re a great benchmark for what people found funny at the time. Every generation has something like this – I’ve come across many examples from the 1920s-1940s – which are valuable for historians. When future generations see mentions of “forwards” in old blog posts or books, they may have no idea what those were because nobody ever bothered to save them.
But as I said, if the emails aren’t preserved, for a big chunk of the twenty-first century, there might be huge gaps in paper copies of people’s personal correspondence…archival silences. Even now, the archival profession is still struggling with how to select, preserve, and store digital records.
It’s not just the correspondence of presidents and generals that we want…they’re hardly representative. Records from ordinary people are so important because they can provide a safeguard against skewing the historical narrative — so think twice before discarding your stuff as inconsequential and consider donating it to an institution; you may be surprised by its significance.
Just as an example, I had put together a scrapbook during my first year at Davidson [College] in the mid-nineties, but over time, I found it a nuisance to lug around and store as I moved from place to place. It was oversized, bulky, and also really pink. It fit nowhere. Eventually, I got fed up with it and decided to approach Davidson to see if they might want it, and in fact, they did. As it turned out, it was the only scrapbook donated to them since the 1930s, and the first ever from a female alum (the college hadn’t gone coed until the seventies). I was surprised!
TT: Wow, this is all so fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us today, Jennifer. Can’t wait to publish this interview!
Kudos and appreciation to Jennifer for all that she is enabling us to learn through The Lantern Project and her many other efforts, using the power of letters to help light the way.