J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Glorious Struggle over Punctuation

Yesterday I visited the Massachusetts Historical Society for a talk by Edward Lengel, compiler of the new book This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters and Associate Editor at the ongoing Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia.

Just to be cheeky, I asked what was new and valuable about that documentary project, given that Washington was not only first in the hearts of his countrymen, but also first in the list of Americans whose papers get transcribed and published in massive multi-volume editions. Lengel described how the current project, when completed in another couple of decades, will produce an edition that:

  • contains more of Washington’s writings than earlier collections, simply because more letters have come to light.
  • contains letters and other material sent to Washington, thus providing both a better picture of what he was thinking about and a wider picture of the society and events around him.
  • more closely adheres to the original documents in spelling, punctuation, and other details.
None of that came as a surprise, but, with questions occasionally raised about financing these long-term documentary projects, it’s good to understand their benefits.

As an example of changing standards in transcribing documents, here’s a passage from Washington’s letter to his friend and sometime aide Joseph Reed dated 1 Feb 1776, as transcribed in Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, published in 1847.
The account given of the behaviour of the men under General [Richard] Montgomery is exactly consonant to the opinion I had formed of these people [New Englanders], and such as they will exhibit abundant proofs of in similar cases whenever called upon.

Place them behind a parapet, a breast-work, stone-wall, or any thing that will afford them a shelter, and from their knowledge of a fire-lock, they will give a good account of their enemy; but I am as well convinced as if I had seen it, that they will not march boldly up to a work, or stand exposed in a plain, and yet, if we are furnished with the means, and the weather will afford us a passage, and we can get in men (for these three things are necessary) something must be attempted.

The men must be brought to face danger; they cannot always have an entrenchment, or a stone-wall as a safeguard or shield, and it is of essential importance that the [British] troops in Boston should be destroyed if possible, before they can be reinforced or remove.
(All words in brackets are my own additions for clarity. As usual, I’ve added paragraph breaks for easier online reading. All these sentences and more came within a single paragraph in Washington’s letter.)

The same passage, according to the Papers of George Washington and Lengel’s book, reflects the document at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence and modern transcription standards. It starts like this:
The Acct given of the behaviour of the Men under Genl Montgomerie is exactly consonant to the opinion I had form’d of these People, and such as they will exhibit abundant proofs of in similar cases whenever called upon—Place them behind a Parapet—a Breast Work—Stone Wall—or anything that will afford them Shelter, and from their knowledge of a Firelock, they will give a good Account of their Enemy, but I am as well convinced as if I had seen it, that they will not March boldly up to a Work—or stand exposed in a plain...
The same words, but with capital letters and punctuation regularized to 1847 standards.

This Glorious Struggle contains letters Washington wrote from 1775 to 1783, including material on military and political matters and personal and business correspondence. It starts with the general’s address to the Continental Congress on accepting the post of commander-in-chief, and ends with his address on resigning.

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