Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 15, 2011

pleasant surprises in the archives

Earlier this week I was at the Harvard University Archives, reading some letters from W. H. Auden to Theodore Spencer, a rather interesting fellow who taught English at Harvard from the mid-1930s until his death, from a heart attack, in 1949, when he was just 46 years old. Throughout the Forties Auden relied on the advice of Spencer, whom he referred to as his "literary confessor" — though he could be rather condescending about the poetry that Spencer sent him for evaluation. ("I'm afraid it won't do.") 

I had gone through one box of Spencer's papers in the Archives and was waiting for another — the one I really needed, of course — to be fetched from storage, and I passed the time by idly looking through the folders in the box that had nothing to do with Auden. One thick folder caught my attention: it was labeled "War Correspondence," and was full of letters from soldiers, most of them (perhaps all) former students of Spencer's whom he had written to as, it seems, his contribution to the war effort. There were letters from dozens of people in the folder, so apparently Spencer had been faithful in writing to them.

I could only look over them briefly, but even so I was struck by the variety of tone and mood they represented. Some correspondents were in training in various remote regions of the U.S.; one was doing some variety of intelligence work in England; others were in Europe in varying degrees of proximity to the front. Some confessed boredom, some anxiety; the one in England seemed quite pleased with his situation. One began his letter by reminding Spencer that his previous correspondence had expressed considerable anger at the foolish people he had to deal with in the Army; he then insisted that he had in the intervening period acquired even more reasons for anger. 

It strikes me that there must be some interesting stories here for the historian; I wish I had time to explore the correspondence more fully myself. The letters strike me as a fascinating and possibly quite useful record of the ways that men from an elite level of American society — Harvard men — adjusted to the demands of serving their country in the great inchoate bureaucracies of the Armed Forces. Maybe one of my readers will pursue these materials some day. The people at the Archive are quite helpful. 


  • One of my friends, a military historian, has said that dealing with the army bureaucracy turned a great many WWII vets into cynics about power and organization. The 1950s were a time when bureaucratic industrial values began to seriously clash with those men's new negative outlook, which is one of the reasons they raised their children, the 60's generation, to be such antinomians.

    That's just a general observation, which you mention of the angry soldier reminded me of; I would be very interested in all of the specific stories contained in those letters.

    Sometimes, I wish I had become an historian. Ah, well, as a librarian at least I can get the opportunity to read whatever books historians end up writing about this sort of thing.

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