Tuesday Treasures

Welcome to another exciting week, everyone! Hope you are all safe and well after the intense weather last week. Because of the holiday yesterday (Presidents’ Day), I wasn’t at work to post my usual Monday Marvels — so instead, you get Tuesday Treasures!

As I’ve probably mentioned previously, one of my jobs during this project is to edit the finding aid for Part I of the collection, which was first processed in the 1970s. There’s a lot of work to be done during this editing, so I’m getting the chance to be fairly hands-on with the materials, which is great news – I’m finding some really interesting things to post about!

Working with older documents, you can get easily wrapped up in the language. I mentioned last week that language evolves over time, which is absolutely true. Think of how most people communicate through the written word these days – emails are probably the longest things most of us write on a daily (or even weekly) basis. We surround ourselves with short snippets of conversation elsewhere – text messages, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds. Written communication seems to me to be much different than it was in decades past, and the enchantment I feel while reading old letters only makes me more aware of this.

A large portion of the materials in Part I are related to the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB), a huge ACLS-sponsored project which ran from the 1920s to the 1990s. The point of the project was to provide biographies for important historical figures, all of whom had resided in the United States at one point or another. The original DAB was published in 20 volumes between 1928 and 1936 (though the committee for the project was first appointed in 1921). Supplementary volumes were published between 1944 and 1995 including biographies of people who had passed away after the first volumes were completed. The DAB was an invaluable tool to scholars for decades, and was succeeded by another ACLS-sponsored project: American National Biography (ANB), first published in 1999 in 24 volumes and still going strong today.

Within the DAB materials, I found a folder titled “Johnsonian letters.” From the few documents in this folder, it is apparent that Allen Johnson (an early editor of the DAB) wrote delightful letters. I’d like to share a few with you here.

Some of them are sweet, letting you know what kind of person Mr. Johnson might have been:

Johnson: Letter 2

This rejection letter for someone hoping their father would be included in the DAB is extraordinarily polite and also (probably inadvertently) funny – he is clearly concerned about hurting people’s feelings!

Johnson - Letter

Sometimes Mr. Johnson’s tone could be biting, though – I like this one a lot for what it can teach us about gender dynamics in the 1920s:


Harsher still is this letter – though clearly able to be sympathetic when the occasion called for it (as seen in the rejection letter above), Mr. Johnson was also able to let someone know when he was unhappy with their professional attitude:

Johnson - Letter 4

That should do it for today. One might say that these letters speak for themselves – very clearly, and with a full range of emotions behind them.

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