A Lovely Display of Letters

At least to an academic, this digital collection of “The John McCoy Family Papers” at the Dartmouth College Library is lovely. View the documents and letters from this page: http://collections.dartmouth.edu/teitexts/jmccoy/index.html

Here’s a nice example of what I find so inviting in the display. The transcription on the left is clear and easy to read, without too many interruptions except where words are illegible. The actual letter image is available on the right in a nice viewer that does not allow readers to copy or download the document, to prevent distribution. I don’t think I’ll ever have the skills or resources to do something like that (you never know), but this would be a nice format in which to display my letters once transcribed. I’ve heard (I have connections) that the collection will eventually offer a toggle to the full TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) markup, something I’d like to learn in my coding adventures.

Dartmouth Library Document Collection Display
Dartmouth Library Document Collection Page Display







13 July 2020: I will never do anything like this, because I got old, I guess. How did that happen?

Remaining Letters

It just occurred to me that all the letters will be scanned soon and out of the envelopes in which they’ve resided for 70 years, unfolded, filed into folders and placed in a file cabinet, recorded in a database, soon to be fully read and transcribed. Occasionally I read snippets as I scan and discovered in one of the earliest letters that Ruth had an idea to make a scrapbook, which explained the stack of returned letters that she had written. Those envelopes have never been opened, but will be soon. I guess I am fulfilling that mid-century idea of a scrapbook as a digital object befitting this next century.

So, I think I should take some photos of the letters that remain in their envelopes, because it certainly feels like a milestone. I’ll keep returning to this post with more photos as the stacks dwindle down to that last one.

12 June–I’m done with 1942. Just the remaining letters from 1944-45, and then the unopened stack of my mother’s letters that were returned for her scrapbook. And no, that’s not a tin of 70 yr. old tobacco–it’s a tin of marbles.

unexpected treasure

Sometimes you find unexpected items folded in with the letters when you first remove them for scanning. Today I found a snipping of a poem from a newspaper, with just a simple note of “I like this. Do You?” It was a sentimental poem, unsigned, about people living apart and not sharing the same experiences, mostly of nature, waiting to experience them “hand in hand.”

Then in the letter dated August 27, 1942, there was this sketch of Walt by an unnamed guy in his platoon, although the sketch is signed by what looks like J. Blatt. It looks pretty good compared to photos I’ve seen. Unlike photographs, this is interesting in that it captures a moment as perceived by an artist, not a camera.


Missing Pieces

Wedding: December 24, 1942
Wedding: December 24, 1942

You know what happens when you’re dealing with an overwhelming amount of material–you just dive in and get started until you can see some kind of pattern emerge or feel ready to impose one. That’s what I’ve done several times in this project. Recently, after scanning all the Korea letters, and with about half the WWII letters left to scan, it seemed possible to put the remaining ones in chronological order and get an idea of what remains.

Why was it a surprise to see that there are no letters from 1943? The 1942 letters are full of references to getting married, with lots of angst about whether it would be possible or if war would interfere. Marriage did prevail–and I knew it–but it never occurred to me that there would be such a huge and decisive gap in the letters. They pick back up in September 1944 and continue to the end of the war in August 1945, but what happened in that first year of marriage? I may never find out, but I can piece together that they must have lived in San Antonio, with my mother returning to Ohio some time in 1944 before the writing begins again, so perhaps they had more than a year together in the interim.

Logic also tells me that my mother returned to San Antonio after the war, perhaps in 1945, because my brother was born there in late 1946.

I guess you always miss what isn’t there and I’ll be wondering what happened in that year, but it won’t be the last missing piece. There are no letters between 1945 and 1951 and I really wish I knew what those years were like.

Sing in me, Muse

I skipped ahead and scanned the Korea letters to get that chore over that’s been nagging at me. Had me thinking about Homer’s Odyssey that I’ve taught so many times and how it narrates the great story of Odysseus out of chronological order, beginning almost at the end of his story, then circling around to near the beginning, with a few flashes to the present here and there, and then arriving again where it started to provide a fitting finish to his tale of war and wandering and homecoming. When I’m done with all the scanning and then the transcribing and I have time to put in writing all the essays I’ve been composing in my head, I suppose I’ll start at the end, as well, or the near end, with these letters.

There are only 30, although I’m sure a few could turn up misfiled with the WWII letters, but I can’t imagine that one or two more would change the overall gist of them which is to get the task of war over and go home. The tone is not at all like that in the letters from the earlier war. Here it is all single-mindedly focused on getting home, with each letter marking the tally of missions, counting up to the fulfillment of the 100. There will be plenty to say about these letters–I do love doing analysis of text–but one thing I think I hear is an echo of the great Achilles setting Odysseus straight about the value of being a dead hero:

Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

Or to borrow from another great epic, “There’s no place like home.”