World’s Strangest

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A Civil War Love Story

We in the modern world sometimes think of ourselves as constantly writing, tapping out words on a keyboard to communicate with each other. But compared to earlier generations, how well do we really express what we think and feel? Annalisa Grier has been reading and digitizing the letters her great-great-great-grandfather, David P. Grier, wrote to his wife Anna McKinney Grier. They were separated for long periods during the early part of their marriage while he was fighting in the Civil War. The love expressed in those letters is breathtaking.

I had this idea, before I opened the letters, of my theoretical great-great-great-grandparents as stiff and restrained — my family is largely Scottish, and even more largely Scottish Presbyterian, which lends itself to a particular sort of buttoned-up repression. You can hear that Presbyterianism coming through occasionally in the letters: “if hereafter I ever do anything to cause you unhappiness, I will thank the hand that punishes me for it,” he writes. But he writes also about the “gayest southern Ladies” he had met while traveling: “I do not care a snap for any of them — I just feel that my heart is gone forever from my Keeping and that it is a great waste of time in going around talking and carrying on with them.” The words David uses in his letters aren’t what I expected to read when I first started this project, and they’re not words that I could imagine myself writing down. The language is so open, so vulnerable to injury, and it makes me feel protective: Watch out, I want to tell him, it’s so easy to get yourself hurt.

But sometimes, also, I’m jealous. It makes me much more uncomfortable to even think about writing such things than it apparently made my 19th-century ancestors to actually write them. I can hardly imagine sitting down to write to my boyfriend “my heart is irrecoverably lost and it is yours, for ever” (which is meant rather as a commentary on my own capacity for expression rather than to knock my feelings for my boyfriend. Love you!). Were I somehow, accidentally, to write that line, I’d probably stare at it for a moment, backspace, and re-draft with something much more noncommittal; something much less likely to put my own heart out on the table next to a knife and fork.

It makes you wonder what future generations will think of our texting, blog posts, and forum comments as the writing of the 21st century. There’s lots more at The Hairpin. Link

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March 14th, 2012

Stranger to the World


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