Thursday, 28 August 2014

A lament for the letter

When you go will you send back a letter from America?’

Thus begins ‘Letter From America’, a classic song from Scottish pop duo The Proclaimers. It reflects a long history of Scottish people emigrating to seek better lives overseas, many leaving behind family members on their native shores. Back then, letters from America or Canada would take weeks or months to arrive back home – if they arrived at all. We can scarcely conceive of how precious such an epistle would be to those who received it.

Today, the letter has been largely rendered obsolete, replaced in written form by email, texts, Facebook messages, tweets, WhatsApps or the multitude of alternative telephone or online messaging systems. We can communicate instantaneously – speak across continents, hear the voices and even see the faces of our loved ones. Technology is astounding, and what would have been thought of decades ago as unthinkable, centuries ago as magical, has fast become the norm. As with progress in most areas, we gain much, and forget what we are leaving behind.

Genealogists do not forget the letter. How could we? Letters are our pathways to pasts unknown to us, our windows into the lives our ancestors lived. From the mundane to the dramatic, the terse to the loquacious, letters possess a peculiar charm to the descendants left behind. We peer intently at the rushed lines of a holiday postcard, struggle to decipher the scrawls of a soldier’s letter home. It’s a fascinating way to get to know your forebears – through their own words. The words were not intended for you – not the friendly enquiries towards a new mother, nor the sympathetic tones for the bereaved. Time passes, and what was a moment full of raw joy or staggering sorrow becomes removed from us. Yet we remember it. These letters open up to us a different world.

We’ve been looking recently at the court records and supporting documents of paternity cases. The love letters we read have a painful edge in retrospect – the promises of eternal adoration belied by the sombre purpose the letters are used for: evidence that the wayward father was once in an intimate relationship with the unmarried mother, now seeking financial support. They are fascinating as evidence and as a glimpse into a society both similar and different to our own. Today, text messages and screenshots might be used to prove past affection in court – but love letters cached in shoeboxes are few and far between. The great-grandchildren of my generation will have no photo albums or physical letters to hold in their hands, but may trawl what remains of us in cyberspace – a modern legacy.

Genealogists will remember the letter. 

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