200 Years of Letters = An American History

January 29th, 2006 by Larry Smith

I cannot think of a much better way to start a day then to wake up at a friend’s apartment in SF’s Potrero Hill after two days of taking notes and SMITH evangelizing at the Indy Press Association’s magazine conference, walk down the block to Farley’s coffeeshop—with the dogs on the sidewalk and cute and crunchy staff and great coffee and one of the best magazine racks ever ($14 later I walked out with a coffee, an organic ginger scone, the Saveur 100 issue, and the new issue of ReadyMade which I had already but will give away, especially as RM’s founder Shana Berger is not only one of the great women of all-time but would buy SMITH if she saw the new issue on a mag rack even she had that issue already), sit down with a gorgeous view of the city and then crack open the New York Times and—even before I had a chance to read Sports or Style be stopped in my tracks just below the fold with this headline: In 200 years of Family Letters, a Nation’s Story . Which is a long way of saying:

Beginning more than 200 years ago, Mr. Cowan’s family has kept the messages — people called them letters in those days — written to one another, as well as correspondence with eminent outsiders like Ralph Waldo Emerson, sermons given by preachers in the family and multipart essays sent home while traveling.

Historians and librarians say the collection is probably as remarkable for its intellectual vigor as for its age and size. It is essentially a dialogue of history: one well-educated, middle-class family’s long conversation, and its interaction with the issues that defined the early nation and its westward tide, including the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, the early rise of feminism and the discoveries of geology that were shaking religious assumptions about the age of the earth. The family’s writers talked all of it through, often at length. Letters of 10 to 12 pages were common.

One of the young descendants of the treasure said that the letters read like a novel that you can’t put down. you start one, and you just have to find out what happens next. The reverb on this find will be long and if done well amazing: imagine a Roots-style miniseries or searchable online archive. IM’s got nothing on one family’s 75,000 documents preserved in 200 boxes.

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