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From Ellie with Love

Posted for Scott Grapin, Digital Library Team:

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Sometime in the 1890s, the love letters shared between Eleanor Mary Sherman (Ellie) and Alexander Montgomery Thackara (Mont) were donated with the rest of the Sherman-Thackara Collection to Villanova College, presumably by Ellie herself. Surely, Ellie saw the value of preserving documents pertaining to her famous father, General William Tecumseh Sherman, as well as to her husband Mont, who was appointed to serve as a U.S. Consul at Le Havre, France in 1897. As the library and its patrons have been discovering, this collection also reveals much about Philadelphia and the Main Line toward the end of the nineteenth century and is a rich primary source for studies of middle-class Victorian life. Because they are available in both Falvey’s Special Collections and Digital Library, these letters are also situated to reflect how different technologies might impact the ways we write and receive personal correspondence.

Although Ellie could not have envisioned their digitization, wide dissemination, and nearly instantaneous accessibility, her donation ensured that letters to Mont would become letters to each of us. At the same time, personal letters are characteristically private. We generally ensure this privacy by sealing a letter in an envelope intended for one recipient. Privacy, therefore, also personalizes the document. Letters may be sealed by drops of wax imprinted with a unique stamp or by glue moistened with the sender’s own mouth. In her letters, a young Ellie repeatedly claims this sort of private intimacy with her “own dearest, dearest Mont” , anticipating the days when she would be his wife in singular devotion. Until that time, the tangible letters would often serve as a surrogate presence when Ellie and Mont were apart. Just as we can see, touch, and smell one of these letters in Special Collections, Ellie would repeatedly delight in her beloved’s epistolary touch, even were Mont unable to drop by to share one of their customary four o’clock walks.

Combined with Special Collections, digital availability might seem to compromise the private intimacy of these personal letters. However, while electronic communications are popularly blamed for the handwritten letter’s fall from favor, the Digital Library potentially balances the direction of influence between electronic and written texts. Generally, the investment of personal time, energy, and attention valued by letter writers is deemed an unnecessary expense by digital correspondents. But a digital transcriber steadily gains an intimate appreciation of Ellie’s letters as he faithfully reconstructs them, collaboratively renewing her creative energy and attention. Any reader can likewise peruse digital images of Ellie’s letters and participate in the slower pace of time and human correspondence in which intimacy deepens.

A reader will also witness the impassioned frequency of Ellie’s letters, sometimes several in a day (see, for instance, March 12, 1880; letters 381, 382, and 383), whose impatience is necessarily tempered by the tension of time required for Mont’s response. Ellie creatively delights in these spans of time. In one instance, she opportunely poses an impromptu riddle to Mont and promises an answer for when they next meet, thereby sweetening the expectation of their intimacy. This game may seem quaint in an age of truncated text and instant messaging, when cascades of emails often overwhelm our ability to respond, let alone contemplate, our textual relationships. Here in the Digital Library, however, some of the best qualities of electronic and handwritten correspondence complement one another. Right now, everyone can repeatedly examine and enjoy any image in the collection, much as Ellie would have pored over Mont’s letters. In time, users will be able to search transcriptions for particular keywords with a virtual familiarity akin to Ellie’s attentive devotion. In the process, the digital medium will preserve and exhibit—and possibly inspire us to participate in—the kind of correspondence we can savor like an intimate walk with a companion … perhaps Ellie, Mont, or someone else we’ve been meaning to write.

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Last Modified: August 19, 2008