Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cracking Tough Nuts

The fun, and often the challenge, in reading letters to newspapers in Bloomsburg, Penn., many of them dating to the 18th century, is that they are written by folks who are convinced that their message is clear when, to a 21st century reader who has never been to Bloomsburg, they are baffling. The fun part is witnessing writers stumble. I admit that I often laughed at the attempts at communication from people whom I suspect were often lonely or angry and too confused to know how to say what they wanted to say.

Reading ``Letters to the Editor: Two Hundred Years in the Life of an American Town,’’ can also be tough for the same reason – many of the letters are cryptic. Because I obviously don’t know the background story behind the letters, I had to make a great effort to understand that which is far from self explanatory. Just proves the point that people need to make sense of what’s around them, even if they must momentarily suspend their laughter.

Many letters are charming – or troubling– because they often say more about the writer than what the writer considers to be his or her main point. It’s not what they say, but how they say it.

When he wrote to The Bloomsburg Daily in 1899, W.J. Lanyon (page 125) either didn’t know, or was just finding out, that the Philipine Incursion was not going to be much fun. After shipping off,

``bands playing, guns firing, banners flying and the officers making speeches and all of us singing patriotic songs,’’
the disillusionment of war wastes no time setting in:
``A great many of us are getting seasick now.’’

One of the letters from Christian Reice, on page 118, uses a matter-of-fact tone that makes the letter turn eerie when he describes shooting a man.

``[W]e are within six hundred yards of the Insurgents outpost and they keep firing at us all night. I shot one out of a tree a few days ago. … As soon as I saw him I took aim and fired. The shot took effect but some of his comrades came and carried him away.’’

I have no idea how he felt about shooting the insurgent. Reading between the lines, I see this as a story of a young man who doesn’t know what to make of killing. For the time being, his use of the bloodless ``took effect’’ is the best he can do.

There is Dikeman, who on page 42 objects to young men using canes as an accessory. Apparently canes were just coming into fashion then.

``With what admiration, bordering on ecstasy, would persons from the country look at some of the town exquisites promenading the streets of our goodly borough, with that useful, beautiful and important aid to their walking organs…’’

Dikeman probably was painfully aware that he would never be considered an ``exquisite’’ around town.

Chiming in on page 42 is Harriet, who finds Dikeman’s intolerance insufferable. If we follow Dikeman’s example, Harriet fears, the town might end up cursed by

``some contemptible whiffet scribbling against the use of wigs, curls, lacing, and all the paraphernalia of a lady’s toilette.’’
(A whiffet is a little whiff or puff.)

But earlier, Harriet said there’s no reason why using a cane ``should so excite the spleen of the petty scribbler.’’ Look who’s talking about scribblers with excited spleens, Harriet. Of course, a woman has a right to defend her paraphernalia.

And a fellow has a right to eat. ``One of the Gang,’’ on page 58, admits that his gang was noisy the other night, but they didn’t steal a chicken. They ate a chicken, but they didn’t steal it.

``We hope that no act of ours will ever cause a disturbing wave to ruffle the calm peacefulness of our town, and in the future, should our palates tickle for chicken we will – well – we will eat chicken.’’

2 comments:

Scott Brodeur said...

Nice job with this entry, Dan. I, too, found the lack of context for a number of letters challenging, confounding and ultimately humorous.

There is a good lesson here on context. Who knows if our writings will be supplying enough context to our readers hundreds of years from now?

Grace the Dog Blog said...

The really sad part is that hundreds of years from now, humanity will have extinguished itself.