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The Immortality of Letters

August 19, 2016

Emily Dickinson once wrote: “A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”  Well, for historians, letters are immortality because we can read what someone wrote 50, 100, 500 years ago and more.

Emily Dickinson’s Writing desk, Image courtesy the Emily Dickinson Museum

Most of us, at some point in our research lives, have to use old correspondence as a source.  Letters between and among scholars, their colleagues, friends and family are indispensable for knowing their candid thoughts.  It is in letters that people reveal themselves to one another.  Many times, we can find scientific details that don’t make it into published works.  Historians of science study letters between Galileo Galilei and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste to understand more about Galileo’s personal life.

She’s got some mean side-eye.  Suor Maria Celeste

Others, like Dena Goodman, study the correspondence among multiple people to trace networks of knowledge transfer or the development of a particular way of thinking. Correspondence is invaluable to historians, as are diaries and a number of other private forms of record-keeping.

There are a number of correspondence projects underway right now.  I know of three in the history of science—the Darwin Correspondence Project, the Tyndall Correspondence Project, and the Kingsley Correspondence Project.  All of these projects comprise large networks of people at multiple universities working on transcribing, notating, and publishing hundreds, if not thousands, of letters.  Darwin, Tyndall, and Kingsley were all giants in their fields and their scientific networks were massive.

Charles Kingsley, 1862  Image Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, UK

So, now that we know the academic reasons for studying correspondence, letters are also just really fun to work with!  Within letters, we can find juicy tidbits of century-old gossip that turn our present-day scholarship into a tabloid-like piece for revealing such information.  I once found a letter from one professor to her student and friend complaining about a Great Man’s wife.  It was pretty funny commentary, and confirmed all rumors that had swirled about the two women in the early 20th century.  But see, even now I’d feel guilty revealing it!

So what about smaller collections of letters?  What about people who maybe only have a few hundred letters to their extant collection?  People like Margaret Murray, whose sent letters survive in archives around the world (such as at the Egypt Exploration Society, the American Philosophical Society, the Oriental Institute at Chicago, and more) and whose received letters largely survive at UCL.  She was famous for purging things so to find any of her personal records is always a treat.  Well, what about them?  Right now, I’m trying to figure out just that.

Currently, I’m working on a small correspondence collection between two of the earliest university-trained American Egyptologists: James Henry Breasted and Caroline Ransom Williams. (There is no English wikipedia article for her.)  I found this small collection of about 250 letters while I was in the archives at the Oriental Institute in Chicago.

Caroline Ransom Williams

Ransom Williams is another one of those women in archaeology whose life and career has been footnoted—literally—in the historical record.  I had heard of her before but I didn’t really know much about her until I started reading the letters between her and her mentor.  There are a number of similarities between Ransom Williams and Murray: they were both the earliest women in their fields trained by the first professional male Egyptologists in their respective countries.  Each woman had to deal with the issues that being a woman in academia brought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—low pay, overwhelming administrative duties, and domestic concerns.  However, where Ransom Williams had family support, and later her husband’s support, she finished her coursework, earned her PhD, and went on to have a productive career outside of the University of Chicago.  On the other hand, Murray had little family support and did not get married, she never finished her coursework and worked at UCL for over 40 years in the Egyptology department that her mentor is credited with creating.

Back to the letters—while there are relatively few in this existing collection and they are all in the OI’s archives (I haven’t yet been able to track down any remaining from Ransom Williams’ own records–if those even exist), they weave an interesting and involved professional and personal narrative between a mentor and student, then later between colleagues and friends.  After she finished her PhD in 1905, she moved to Bryn Mawr to be a professor of Art History, then in 1910 to New York to become the Assistant Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Egyptian Art Department under Albert M. Lythgoe.  As per usual, Lythgoe went to dig in the winters while Ransom Williams was left running the department (see also: Margaret Murray’s whole career).  She published a number of exhibit volumes and original research.  She later moved home to Toledo to marry her long-time suitor, Grant Williams.  She remained employed by the New York Historical Society and regularly commuted to New York from Toledo to keep the position.  She also held positions at the Toledo Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was able to visit Chicago regularly to use the library at the Oriental Institute.

This information can all be found in her short biography for the Breaking Ground Project.  What makes these letters useful and unique for looking into Ransom Williams’ life is the candor with which she writes to Breasted about mutual friends of theirs, like the Adolf Erman family during the First World War.  Also, the way in which they exchange barbs about certain scholars not being of sound mind, the care they show each other during times of loss or personal stress, or their own curiosity at being studied by later historians.  These letters and more will be revealed in the print version of these transcribed letters, which I’m working on right now.  But don’t these little tastes make you want to read more?  Me too–so I’m off to read more of them.  These letters make Ransom Williams, a scholar whom history has pushed to the margins, an immortal being with words and feelings and a life to share.  I’ll let you know soon how the story unfolds.

How do you use correspondence in your work?  Let me know!


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Raffaella permalink
    August 26, 2016 9:53 am

    I can only say how much I look forward to read your paper and these letters!

    • harngroup permalink*
      August 30, 2016 1:57 pm

      Thank you, Raffaella! It’s so fun, isn’t it?

  2. September 18, 2016 10:57 am

    My grad adviser retired after 50 yrs at Johns Hopkins- spanning an important era in biochem and molec biol. His papers- incl correspondences- were donated to the univ library. With the www, I have tons more interactions and globally. I’d like to think my work has been and is important. Some of it has changed my field and the bigger area of study. Yet, all of it is via emails- not saved. (too many, and too many short bursts of 2-5 sentences not ‘worthy of archiving’). In a sense, beyond my published articles, I “won’t have existed” once I stop.


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