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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Friday, January 10, 2014

The Deborah Champion Letter as Historical Fiction

One quality of the Deborah Champion letter, in either version, that struck everyone on the team of researchers that Joseph Warren biographer Sam Forman assembled is its novelistic detail. In short, it reads like fiction. What’s more, Tamesin Eustis wrote, “Not only is it an extraordinarily well-organized ‘narrative’ that doesn’t read true for most letter-writing, it has the tone, style, and language of something written in a later era.”

Derek Beck said:
The letter is written to someone she is close to, but there seems to be language in the letter that is really meant as exposition to us the audience, as if the letter is not truly personal. One example: “John and Jerry are both good saddle horses as you and I know.” Well, if both “you and I know,” why I am explaining it? I see this in movie scripts all the time: crappy dialogue that feels unreal, and is the result of bad writing produced by a writer who is attempting to pass exposition to the audience but couldn’t find a natural way to do so.

In fact, this letter doesn’t really feel very familiar between the two at all. There’s nothing that seems to require insider knowledge between the two. I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur snooping on a personal letter, I feel like I’m reading a story, with words too polished for a mere personal letter.
In particular, I think the texts—especially the version published in 1912 and 1926—spotlight details that were quaint and historic to readers around the turn of the last century. For instance, the writer has a habit of mentioning garments and often even the cloth they’re made of: “small clothes for father,” “my linsey-woolsey dress,” “my camlet cloak,” “my close silk hood,” “her calash.” Almost all of those fabrics and garments had gone out of fashion by the early twentieth century. The letter says nothing about a straw hat or a linen gown or anything else that would still be familiar.

The letter—again, the earlier published version in particular—offers a lot of verbatim dialogue for verisimilitude, but again that conversation is made to seem antique. The Champions weren’t Quaker, but this is the way the letter has them speaking:
“Deborah, I have need of thee; hast thou the heart and the courage to go out in the dark and in the night and ride as fast as may be until thou comest to Boston town?”

“Surely, my Father, if it is thy wish, and will please thee.”

“I do not believe, Deborah, that there will be actual danger to threaten thee, else I would not ask it of thee, but the way is long and the business urgent. The horseman that was here awhile back brought dispatches which it is desperately necessary that General Washington should receive as soon as possible. I cannot go, the wants of the army call me at once to Hartford, and I have no one to send but my daughter. Dare you go?”

“Dare! father, and I your daughter,—and the chance to do my country and General Washington a service. I am glad to go.”
In short, the Deborah Champion letter reads like deliberately written historic fiction, albeit poorly researched.

TOMORROW: The Colonial Revival context.

[The appearance of The Turning of Anne Merrick above isn’t meant to suggest that Christine Blevins’s historical fiction is poorly researched. I just liked the cloak.]

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

"Deliberately written" indeed. The parts that struck me most were concerning the slave. His dialect was picturesque but surprising for a man from Connecticut, and the emphasis on his teeth struck me as very early 20c, almost filmic, when the contrast between skin and teeth was an important part of the presentation of a slave. (How many adult males in the late 18c had enough teeth to chatter, anyway?)

I don't think that the father's language was Quaker, partly because he does not speak in the Quakerly language that I learned as a girl, but mostly because the Quakers had a strong peace testimony (making it hard in some areas to raise Continental troops) and would not have involved themselves in worldly martial affairs. I think the author was just going for another bit of picturesque coloration.

And I really don't get how it worked that Deborah was a sweet brave obedient 17-year-old who was allowed thru the British lines because she was an old woman.

On the other hand, the DAR members you showed earlier look very formidable and I would not want to argue with them.