Reading other people’s mail: Part One

Hutchinson Jacket coverThomas Hutchinson (1711–1780) was the last crown-appointed civilian governor of Massachusetts. During his term of office, he dealt with the aftermath of both the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts has recently published the first volume of his selected correspondence covering the years 1740–1766. It is most readily available through Here are a few thoughts about the process of documentary editing by John Tyler, one of the volumes’ two co-editors.

The effort to bring Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s letters into print has a long history, much longer than the twenty years that I have been working on them. In 1951 and 1954, the National Historical Publications Committee at the Colonial Society of Massachusetts urged their publication. Later in the decade, Malcolm Freiberg and Catherine Shaw Mayo began transcribing the nearly 1,800 letters contained in Hutchinson’s letter books at the Massachusetts Archives. These transcriptions were an invaluable aid to anyone researching the Boston politics of the fifteen years before the American Revolution.

In 1990, when I became Editor of Publications at the Colonial Society, and thanks to the efficiency of my predecessor Fritz Allis, I had the luxury of casting about for worthy projects to publish. Discussion quickly centered on the Hutchinson Papers, but who would edit them? I naively volunteered. After all, I was a historian; I worked with deciphering historical manuscripts all the time. What could be so hard about preparing them for publication, especially given the enormous head start that Freiberg and Mayo had already given us? Bernard Bailyn, who was present at the meeting, sagely asked if I was willing to devote the rest of my scholarly career to the project.

And indeed he was right. Here we are 24 years later just bringing out volume one. That the first volume took so long is partly the consequence of the fact that Elizabeth Dubrulle and I needed to teach ourselves the arcana of documentary editing, but the delay really was caused by the fact that in addition to my part-time job working as editor for the Colonial Society, I was already fully employed as a history teacher at Groton School. Thus, the best I could do was pick up and put down the task as time allowed. Now that I am retired from teaching, I hope volumes 2, 3, and 4 will go much more quickly.

During the 20 long years it took to complete Volume 1, Elizabeth Dubrulle held the project together as we moved from paper files in triplicate to floppy disks to thumb drives to the Cloud. Elizabeth also has a keen eye, which I do not, for consistency of detail, something that is absolutely essential to a documentary edition. Policies, once established, need to be followed. Over time, Elizabeth, who knew little about Hutchinson at the outset, developed good instincts about his ways of thinking and patterns of speech, and there were any number of instances where she would encourage me to rethink a footnote – and I would have to admit that she was right.

What is the appeal of being a documentary editor? On occasion, there is the excitement of carefully unfolding a letter or document written over 250 years ago, but for the most part Elizabeth and I work with photocopies or files on a computer. Only rarely is it necessary to travel to the Archives of the Commonwealth on Columbia Point to ponder some particularly illegible word. The pleasure of editing historical documents involves being able to enter into the past without being encumbered by all the history that has been written about either people or events since they first occurred.

This summer as I was working on Hutchinson’s correspondence from 1767, I stumbled across a letter from Israel Mauduit who was then acting as the agent for the Massachusetts Assembly in London. Mauduit himself had been reading the printed letters of a number of historical figures who were principal actors during the Elizabethan period and the years leading up to the English Civil War. He knew Hutchinson, who had just completed the second volume of his History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay, would share his enthusiasm about the experience: “By seeing the Accounts of Affairs while they were yet depending, and then existing only by design,” he wrote, “you feel the same kind of suspence and anxiety about Events as those men were agitated with, who were then Living, and to whom those Event[s] were future and Uncertain.”

The idea that a letter might involve something more than obligatory thanks to distant relatives for an unwanted gift first struck me in high school. My English teacher had assigned some of the essays of E. B. White as a model of spare but stylish modern American prose. I enjoyed them so much that one day, while prowling the aisles of a used bookstore, I bought a collection of his letters. I was smitten. How my heart would have pounded if there had been a letter in my mailbox with the return address “Brooklin, Maine.”

Later on, during a summer job, I was staying in an above-the-garage apartment in a town on the New England coast where there was a complete set of the Letters and Diaries of Harold Nicolson. I read my way through them all that summer (no small undertaking!), and they in turn led to the Letters of Virginia Woolf. And so I was off exploring the back streets of Bloomsbury (they were indeed a remarkably self-documenting lot!), and thus encountered other master letter writers like Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. And although my own letters or those of my correspondents were never as deliciously gossipy or as venomous, I began saving the letters I received and copies of the ones I wrote, a collection that persisted long into the days of email.

Reconstructing history through old letters requires a good dose of imagination and empathy. But gradually you begin to know (or think you know) your subject and his correspondents. After all, eighteenth century Boston was a remarkably small place: only 15,000 people, three-quarters of whom would have been women and children and, therefore – given the unenlightened attitudes of the times – not actors on the political stage. And despite generous property requirements, only a fraction of adult males could vote. It really was just a small town.

To essay concludes here.

About John Tyler

John W. Tyler, longtime Editor of Publications for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, recently retired from a thirty-six-year-long career teaching history at Groton School. Author of Smugglers & Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (1986), and a number of scholarly articles and reviews, Tyler received his Ph.D. at Princeton.

5 thoughts on “Reading other people’s mail: Part One

  1. Since Hutchinson as well had to deal with the aftermath of the Boston instigated expulsion of the French Acadians from their homelands, his letters should contain insights into this tragic story as well.

  2. What a wonderful post! This time last year, I read Jill Lepore’s “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” based on the few extant letters of Jane, and the many letters of her brother Benjamin. Your post reminds me of this book partly because the time and place overlap that of Thomas Hutchinson. Since Boston was such a small town, the Franklins surely knew him. Like the Genealogy Lady, I have some old family letters. Mostly they are randomly preserved ones of random ancestors, but each is a snapshot of the past that usual statistics can’t provide. I also have 300 or so postcards my grandparents wrote to each other in 1910-1911, the year of their engagement. They lived in the same town, but his job involved travel, so he was gone most of the time during the week. Since both died before I was born, these postcards are a great source of information. One of these days, I need to digitize and transcribe them, rather than just dip into them. My late father put them in chronological order, which will make the transcription easier. One of the surviving letters is a pages-long love letter he wrote her in 1907, when ostensibly he was still just a family friend. He was quite a writer!

  3. We are transcribing the 1864-7 letters from my great grandfather, E. B. Wight, Washington Correspondent for the NY Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago REpublicans and Inter Ocean and the Boston Journal partially owned by W. W. Clapp, Jr. who became his father-in-law (and my great-great grandfather. E. B. was also a founder of the Gridiron Club home to annual dinners making fun of whoever is the president at the time.

    I am wondering how to decipher “particularly illegible words?”

    1. I love transcribing handwritten materials: it’s sort of a combination of puzzle and cryptography, with hidden treasure thrown in. I think I like it because I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of letter writers, many of them 2 or 3 generations behind me (I was born in 1942, so on the cusp of older handwriting styles). I had to learn to read their handwriting, all in a style very different from what I was taught! In my teens this led to me studying handwriting analysis and looking at how people write. I’ve done transcribing for several organizations, and am pretty good at it. The thing to do when you come across those “particularly illegible words” is to take a look at recognizable words or words that you can easily suss out from the context in the document you are transcribing. Break the words down into the individual letters and look at the various ways that particular writer has of making the same letters in different positions in words. Then pick out the letters you can recognize in the mysterious words, taking the context into account. I’ve found that usually fills in enough to get an accurate reading. If not, the standard is to put the best guess in brackets with a question mark, or if it is so illegible that the context itself doesn’t help, just a question mark in brackets, like this: [?]. Then have somebody else have a look at it. Two or three pairs of eyes are better than one pair: each might see what the others miss. Good luck. And have fun!

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