Sally Brett

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1979


Before you can write about a Civil War mother's letters to her son or edit the courtship letters of a young Tarboro woman, you have first to find the letters. For some researchers, this means finding people—informants—and then, hopefully, the family manuscripts in the attic or barn or cupboard. For my class, I took a different—some might say easier—route: I identified manuscripts of interest in the university's manuscript collection. Actually, that is not as easy as it sounds. Most manuscripts come from prominent men of the region. Thus the emphasis of cataloguing falls on male activities—and male names. What you do is search very, very carefully for the note stuck at the end of the last paragraph which reads, "Also, letters of wife." Or daughter. Or "Some household and domestic journals."

As the students and I discovered, beginning with the manu scripts is just that: a beginning. Students tend to look blankly at the assorted letters or diaries or journals and say, "Now what?" It's a panic point, and the best way to get beyond it is to provide parallel readings. These readings should help the students learn to do two things: (1) to read the archival materials in a new way and (2) to observe the methods of researchers who have worked with similar materials. To start with the latter: possibly the best models are furnished by Anne Scott's book The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics and by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's article "The Female World of Love and Ritual." I stress that Scott and Smith-Rosenberg (as well as Barbara Welter) provide not only content information but also highly impressive answers to the questions of citation and use of archival materials.



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