Between 1904 and 1953, Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway wrote enough letters to create “a volume of friendship,” as Isabella called their correspondence – approximately three hundred letters over fifty years.
Putting these letters between the covers of an actual book was an absorbing project for me and co-editor Robert H. McGinnis.
We transcribed the letters, put them in order, looked up names and places and phrases that were unfamiliar to us, and finally wrote a narrative to connect them all.
The work was not inconsiderable, but nothing about it was especially hard.
However, historians in the future may find such a task all but impossible. They could be stymied by that very first step.
Children are learning to use computers at earlier and earlier ages. It’s not just a joke that your second grader can do more on the computer than you can.
Even if these young people learn to write, it’s very likely they will not learn to read other people’s handwriting. Invitations, thank you notes, love letters – all the documents people used to pore over — increasingly arrive in electronic formats, invariably typed.
Deciphering Isabella’s and, especially, Eleanor’s sometimes difficult handwriting was not particularly hard for me because I had spent fifteen years teaching high school English, reading the handwriting of 100 or so different people every year. I know most of the peculiar ways to write an S or an R. I have practiced making educated guesses based on context.
Judy Nolte Temple, professor of women’s studies and literature at the University of Arizona, and an expert in women’s diaries, speculates that within a generation specialists will be needed to decipher cursive writing, much as scholars translate Latin today.
Historians scrolling through archived emails will not have the sensuous, almost mystical pleasure of handling a document touched by the actual hand of their subject. They will miss the subtle clues to personality that emerge in handwriting. A connection will be lost.
Volume of Friendship is distributed by the University of New Mexico Press