The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.
I understand that to many of our readers, the idea of writing handwritten letters to a friend is not so much a fun challenge as it is a (very recently) outmoded form of communication. But as someone who grew up in the computer age and spends most of her work hours reading and transcribing Martha Washington’s letters, I was inspired to write some of my own.
This fall, I returned to UVA, beginning my second year in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the Washington Papers. Usually, my job around the office is determined on a day-to-day basis: some days I’m combing through newspaper databases, other days researching people on Ancestry.com. This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me.
Fresh off I-81, I arrived at the University of Virginia in my Virginia Tech sweatshirt. You could say I stood out. But no matter: I was welcomed into the Washington Papers family as if I were one of their own, not just as an undergraduate who would be there for several weeks, but as another historian and aspiring archivist.
After a difficult spring semester, I returned home from the University of Virginia to visit my family, exchanging the stirring smell of coffee from Alderman Library for the welcoming aroma of authentic Vietnamese food. Being home is always a welcome, much-needed break. My productivity level plummets, and my motivation to look presentable disappears. I constantly find myself wearing pajama pants and T-shirts, and I usually think my fashion choices are fine. Being home is a break from the necessity to appear “put-together”…or so I thought.
Letters reveal a great deal about the sender and recipient—their relationship, their opinions on particular matters—as well as overall historical context. Condolence letters do that and more. George Washington’s death resulted in a deluge of condolences to Martha, from family members, friends, organizations, acquaintances, and even strangers. Sending their regrets, these letters vary from brief notes to lengthy passages. As a research editor, it’s eye-opening to see the spectrum of emotions conveyed.
The First American primarily focused on Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War, encouraging reflection on Washington’s extraordinary persistence in fighting and leading despite hardships and failures. But it was one specific instance that provoked my deeper appreciation for Washington as a leader who could balance noble ideals and everyday practicality.
Sometimes I’ll go stand in front of our shelves of Martha Washington documents and give them a calculating look-over. Each decade has its own shelf, from the 1750s to the 1800s. The 1790s and 1800s bulge with the most envelopes, and get a contented nod. The 1750s get a narrow look because we don’t yet have anything earlier than 1757. That’s 27 years of Martha’s life that have escaped, for the most part, from the documentary record.
Last month, my colleagues Lynn Price and Edward G. Lengel and I had the amazing opportunity to visit Barbados, where George Washington traveled—and had the foresight to write about—more than two-and-half centuries ago.
Last week, Research Assistant Kathryn Gehred and I attended the National Humanities Alliance’s Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. The annual two-day event teaches humanities projects across the United States how to advocate among policymakers for equal or increased funding of institutions, such as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).